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The pandemic has taken a toll on the frontline workers at the Transport Workers Union, but action and compassion go a long way. Industry employers need to take note and make adjustments as their frontline workers return.

For the Transport Workers Union of America (TWU), representing over 150,000 union workers across airlines, transit, utilities, railroads and other services, the pandemic has been a time of mourning — and yet a time for growth.

The union itself was born out of crisis, launching in New York City during the Great Depression. And it continues to tackle tough challenges, especially this past year, whether it was by airport baggage handlers, bus drivers, train conductors, or ticket agents, to name just a few jobs within TWU.

The union suffered the greatest loss of life to coronavirus within its transit division. Of 177 members nationwide succumbing to coronavirus across all the industries that TWU covers, the bulk of them —107 transit workers — occurred in New York, said Alex Garcia, international executive vice president of the TWU.

“We got a lot of infections and lost a lot of people in the airlines, but I can honestly tell you it’s a fraction compared to our transit,” said Garcia.

Airline workers have been the second most affected union group with 40 deaths to date and 2,091 confirmed cases of coronavirus since the beginning of the pandemic, an internal TWU report Skift reviewed showed. As of early May, the report showed 10 percent of TWU’s collective workforce has died as a result of Covid-19.

“The pandemic educated everybody on many things. What was interesting for us five as (TWU’s) leadership with three leaders living in New York, one in California by San Francisco and me living in Miami, is how three different governors approached it with the same airlines and public transit,” Garcia said. “They all took different approaches.”

TWU International Executive Vice President Alex Garcia

Transport Workers Union International Executive Vice President Alex Garcia addressing a gathering of union workers. Photo courtesy of TWU

A father of identical triplet boys, Garcia, 51, started out working in the fleet service division at American Airlines at 19, before working his way up the union to his present leadership position. In his younger days, Garcia’s internship and volunteering experience with U.S. Senators Bob Graham and Bill Nelson helped eventually land Garcia in Washington, D.C. as a political representative for TWU on a national level before leading the union’s government affairs department.

Working in partnership with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, Garcia said both unions, collectively representing a majority of airline employees, were instrumental in working on the CARES Act, which provided payroll protection to its workers.

During the pandemic, TWU got a vote on an American Airlines contract previously stuck for years at the national mediation board, within days of everything shutting down in March, 2020, Garcia said. TWU also landed a contract with Flight Services International flight attendants flying charter for Atlas Air and has opened contract renegotiations for Southwest flight attendants, fleet services and agents, he said.

Returning to traveling in April after being vaccinated, Garcia commuted every week  between Miami and the nation’s capital to meet with airline workers. He said the union members often come up to him to talk about plane shortages, their problems or concerns and vaccine hesitancy, he said.

TWU Local 555 Swearing in

Transport Workers Union Local 555 Executive Board representing Southwest Fleet Service workers being sworn in at TWU headquarters in Washington, DC by International Vice President Alex Garcia on May 5. Photo courtesy of TWU

It’s an individual decision, but once the program runs out if someone tests positive, they’ll have to quarantine for 14 days using their sick time, he said. American, for example, doesn’t mandate the vaccine, but will give workers an extra day of vacation and 50 bucks to get a vaccine as an incentive. It’s more than most people have done, Garcia said.

“We’re not back to normal. But I’m an eternal optimist, I’m a glass half full guy not a glass half empty, so yeah I’ll say the future’s bright,” Garcia said.

As travel recovery continues, TWU is ramping up for a September in person conference in Las Vegas.

Skift asked Garcia a series of questions of importance to the industry right now.

Skift: What lessons did this pandemic offer to you and your membership?

Alex Garcia:There’s an old saying that the only hand I can count on is the one at the end of my sleeve. I think early on in this pandemic, really everybody was on their own and then we as a union did everything we could and the best we could by buying (protective equipment). But at that time, everyone else was trying to buy. It was incredibly educational. Unfortunately, an ugly educational experience.

We as leadership provided face masks and hand sanitizers. We supported the efforts of Southwest Airlines flight attendants forming a Covid-19 task force to help them in their struggles with exposures and getting airline management to provide them with protective equipment. And the flight attendants prevailed.
Skift: Do you worry that all of the gains you and your colleagues have worked so hard for will get rolled back now?
Garcia: Many of us have a concern that companies and airlines are going to use the pandemic to try to roll back some of the gains and the protections that we’ve been able to negotiate. And that was one of the main reasons the CARES Act was so important, because those frontline workers are being paid by the government, by all of us.

Skift: People are saying the labor shortage we are seeing is because people got too used to receiving too much in stimulus or unemployment aid, that they don’t want to work now. What do you think?

Garcia:  I don’t think that’s true. I think the majority of all Americans want to to work. I think working gives people a good state of mind and I think people do want to return to work. The majority of all of our airline workers are back at work and the airlines are hiring again.

Skift: We marked the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s death this week. What can companies, where your membership works, be doing to make stronger gains on diversity?

Garcia: At the TWU, we have an amazing history of inclusiveness and human civil rights, MLK (Martin Luther King, Jr.) spoke at our convention, obviously before my time and yours. And we have a civil and human rights department centered on diversity and inclusiveness. And while that might sound simple or cliched, that’s exactly what you need to bring everybody in. Companies need to openly embrace everyone and make sure they are welcoming to every walk of life.

Our workforce looks like the populations they serve in the cities where they work.

Skift: Lastly, President Biden and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo have expressed their support for labor and unions, but surely something must keep you up at night, too. What is your biggest worry for the future of labor in this country?

Garcia: The biggest concern would be right to work for our membership not covered under the Railway Labor Act, a federal act superseding any right-to-work laws in states. And the fact that (when it comes to) labor, all of us need to educate as many Americans and more people about what we bring to the table to help bring people into the middle class or maintain a middle class job involving benefits, retirement, and safe working conditions.

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Tags: coronavirus, coronavirus recovery, transport + airlines, unions

Photo credit: One of the leaders of the Transport Workers Union International (whose members are pictured here) shares his views of what he learned from the pandemic and its impact on his rank-and-file and labor in the travel sector. Svitlana Hulko / Getty Images

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