Tangle of Unions is a Challenge

By Eve Tahmincioglu

Jan. 20, 2006

Two different headquarters. Two different frequent-flier programs. Four different hubs. Hundreds of different destinations and hundreds of different aircraft. Dealing with all these complex issues will be a breeze for the newly merged US Airways and America West compared with dealing with the multitude of union groups now under the merged carrier’s umbrella.

    When US Airways and America West made their merger official in September, their employees were covered by 18 union groups and 18 contracts with different expiration dates and issues. Not to mention the many union presidents, vice presidents, chairmen and others representing the conglomeration of labor groups.

    “The task is challenging for our employees as they have to wait while the various unions work out several items,” says Larry LeSueur, US Airways’ vice president of culture integration. “As a result, there is a level of the unknown, which we wish our employees didn’t have to experience. However, in the near term these issues will get worked out.”

    Since mergers in the airline industry are nothing new, there’s a typical union representation playbook when two companies merge. If a job classification at America West and US Airways was covered by the same national union but had separate locals, contracts and regional governance, the two groups eventually will come under the same contract. At US Airways, the pilots at both companies are all part of the National Airline Pilots Association, the flight attendants come under the Association of Flight Attendants, and the dispatchers are covered by the Transport Workers Union. In these cases, the two groups will typically maintain their local governance but operate as one entity when it comes to contract negotiations.

    For example, the pilots group had 1,888 employees at America West governed by a separate “master executive council” and covered by a contract that was up for renewal this year, and has 2,957 US Airways pilots whose contract expires in 2009. As a result of the merger, says US Airways pilot group spokesman Jack Stephan, the pilot union representatives from both carriers are negotiating with the company together but still maintain separate operations until details regarding worker seniority are hammered out and a new contract is signed with US Airways. Eventually, the two employee groups will be combined, but Stephan won’t speculate on a time frame.

    In the case of employees doing similar jobs at both carriers but being represented by two different national unions, the melding of union representation will be a bit stickier. At the time of the merger, 852 mechanics at America West were represented by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, while US Airways’ nearly 4,000 mechanics, stock clerks and maintenance training crew were covered by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. In cases such as this, the National Mediation Board typically steps in to help mediate any disputes regarding who will represent whom.

    Two unions at the combined company helped make the process easier late last year. The Communications Workers of America and the Teamsters agreed to jointly represent the nearly 9,000 passenger service workers and reservation agents.

    The union quandary could continue for months and even years as union leaders jockey for control. But Bill Adams, a labor consultant with Adams, Nash, Haskell & Sheridan, a firm in Fort Wright, Kentucky, stresses that US Airways managers should keep focused on contract negotiations and make it clear to union officials that the ball is in their court to come up with compromises everyone can accept.

    “Union members know what’s going on in the airline industry and how it’s being decimated, so they should be malleable,” he says. “But employers have to have a good story to tell. They have to be honest. You don’t put two organizations together without some anticipation of cost cutting.”

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