The day American Airlines and US Airways announced their merger proposal, their union leaders smiled and shook hands with airline executives and one another.
Some union presidents, including those who represent American’s pilots, flight attendants and ground workers, had advocated for a merger of the carriers for months, even signing conditional labor agreements with US Airways executives in April.
Others, such as US Airways’ pilots and flight attendant leaders, got involved in the discussions later but willingly signed memorandums of understanding to help ease the integration.
But despite the hugs and good will exchanged when the merger was announced Feb. 13, challenges lie ahead for the unions. Seniority integration lists need to be crafted. Workers must decide which union they want to represent them in contract talks with the merged carrier.
“We’re not going to see how amicable this merger is for a few more years, when the difficult questions come,” said Gary Chaison, professor of labor relations at Clark University in Massachusetts.
And if the unions, along with airline management, can’t solve these issues in a timely fashion, that could limit the financial benefits touted by AMR CEO Tom Horton and US Airways CEO Doug Parker.
“Union issues have to be put away if American is going to be successful going into the future,” airline industry consultant Darryl Jenkins said.
AMR has 54,700 unionized workers. US Airways has 30,260.
Happy to work together
For the flight crew, nothing is more important in a merger than seniority.
The memorandums of understanding signed by the pilot and flight attendant unions outline how to discuss seniority. But the issue probably won’t be decided for over a year.
“Nothing in an official capacity will occur until after the [National Mediation Board] does a ruling on single-carrier status and the representation issue is settled,” Allied Pilots Association President Keith Wilson said the day after the merger announcement. “Then we’ll go into the seniority integration after that.”
The board didn’t grant the merged United Continental single-carrier status until April 30, 2011, almost a year after that merger was announced. Its pilots agreed to a joint contract in December and are working on a seniority integration list.
Leaders at the Allied Pilots Association, which represents only American Airlines pilots, and the US Airline Pilots Association, also a one-carrier union, continue to discuss integration. Last week the two boards met in Fort Worth to talk with US Airways executives including Parker, who will lead the merged airline.
“The success of this merger will signify the cooperative effort of professional pilots and management working together. We are pleased to be working with our colleagues of the Allied Pilots Association who are also committed to seeing our new company succeed, and ensure a safe flight for our passengers each and every day,” President Gary Hummel of the US Airline Pilots Assocation said when the merger was announced.
Like the pilots, flight attendants union leaders have reached out to each other to begin integration discussions.
“We’ve had a long relationship with the [Association of Flight Attendants] and we’ve committed to making this a smooth transition,” President Laura Glading of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants said the day the merger was announced.
The Association of Flight Attendants, which represents attendants at US Airways and American Eagle, said the merger holds “great opportunities” for flight attendants.
“As full partners in the world’s largest airline, we expect meaningful participation in its benefits,” the union said in a statement. “We look forward to working with our colleagues at American in improving wages, benefits, work rules and retirement security for all Flight Attendants at the new American.”
Another question that remains is which union will represent each work group after the merger. Airline analysts say American’s unions are likely to prevail in representation elections held by the National Mediation Board, simply because those unions have significantly more members.
But the large industry-wide unions like the Association of Flight Attendants and the Air Line Pilots Association, which represents pilots at American Eagle and at US Airways’ regional carriers, PSA and Piedmont, may compete for members.
“The big question for the pilots and the flight attendants is going to be how, in this big group, does it make sense for me to remain independent or to have a national union represent my interest,” said Bill Swelbar, an airline researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
A fight for the hearts of mechanics
Not all the unions at American and US Airways have been cheering for a merger.
The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers withheld its support for the merger, saying it wants new contracts instead for the 8,600 ground crew, mechanics and related workers it represents at US Airways.
“We have been in contract talks for about two years, and we want contracts for our members before we discuss any merger-related issue with US Airways,” Machinists union spokesman James Carlson said. He said members want wage increases and better health and retirement benefits.
The Machinists have not signed a memorandum of understanding. The union’s counterpart representing American’s mechanics and ground workers, the Transport Workers Union, has signed a a memorandum, but not all those mechanics are pleased with it or with the contract their union negotiated.
American’s mechanics approved a concessionary contract in August by a margin of only 48 votes out of more than 9,500. In its memorandum of understanding with American, the union agreed to drop a profit-sharing agreement in the new contract for a 4.3 percent raise.
“We’re missing a bunch of [the Machinists’ current] contractual items,” transport workers Local 565 President Gary Peterson said of his union’s memorandum. “My guys would rather have [the union’s International President] Jim Little go in and say we want what US Airways already has.”
For example, US Airways mechanics have 10 holidays that earn double time, whereas American’s mechanics have five holidays paying time and a half.
“That is just one of many contractual items that TWU members want back,” said Peterson, who represents line mechanics at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport.
Complicating the mix are two other unions, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association. Both are courting American mechanics in an effort to unseat the Transport Workers Union.
“American Airlines mechanics came to us and said, ‘We want new representation,’ and they have been working very hard since June of last year to make that a reality,” Teamsters spokesman Chris Moore said. The Teamsters said this month that they have signed representation cards from a majority of mechanics at several maintenance stations in American’s network, including a maintenance hangar at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport.
The National Mediation Board requires 50 percent of eligible employees in a work group to back a representation change before it will hold an election. Moore said the Teamsters are very close to that mark and expect an election before the board awards single-carrier status to American-US Airways.
The Teamsters are mounting a similar campaign at US Airways to unseat the Machinists, but Moore declined to comment on its progress.
The Transport Workers Union has started fighting back, sending mailers and brochures to its members contrasting its union with the Teamsters.
“If you really want to study Teamsters’ representation in the aviation sector, buy a plane ticket to China, where most of United Airlines’ aircraft are repaired,” Little said. “In contrast, American Airlines repairs the bulk of its aircraft in-house and in the United States, and will continue to so under agreements reached by TWU with both AMR and US Airways.”
While it is rare for workers to leave one union for another, airline analysts say it’s easy to find disgruntled workers after a concessionary contract signed during bankruptcy.
“You’re forced to participate and then you have sharks swimming around, pointing at the fact that you gave concessions,” Swelbar said. “It’s really an unfortunate circumstance for the TWU.”
In the past decade, about 150,000 airline jobs have been eliminated, making union representation a big issue, he said. With tens of thousands of dues-paying members up for grabs, Swelbar said, he expects all the unions to campaign aggressively to represent pilots, flight attendants, mechanics and ground workers.
(c)2013 the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Distributed by MCT Information Services.