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Charlotte US Airways employees join push for merger

Charlotte-based US Airways pilots and flight attendants are traveling to Washington, D.C. this week to pressure lawmakers to support the blocked US Airways-American Airlines merger.

But many members of the company’s biggest union, the International Association of Machinists, say they want a new contract in place before they’ll support the merger.

The U.S. Department of Justice unexpectedly filed suit to stop the merger last month. The airlines have scheduled a “fly-in” to bring more than 300 employees from across the U.S. to Washington, in advance of a planned Nov. 25 trial on the merger.

Employees say they hope to push the Justice Department to settle the case, or pressure lawmakers from seven states that have joined the lawsuit to get their states to back out. The employees’ message to lawmakers will be simple: This merger is good for us, good for competition, and good for the airline industry.

“It’s a good thing. It’s good for consumers and all the employees,” said Catherine Bossi, president of the Charlotte-based chapter of the Association of Flight Attendants and 30-year employee of US Airways. She’ll focus on lobbying Carolinas lawmakers.

The Justice Department disagrees, and says the merger would hurt competition by eliminating US Airways’ lower fares on connecting routes, ultimately costing fliers hundreds of millions of dollars. They said it would also make it easier to raise fees for travelers. US Airways and American can survive and compete effectively on their own, the Justice Department said, and don’t need to merge.

Seven states and the District of Columbia have joined the Justice Department in the suit, but the Carolinas did not. Carolinas lawmakers have generally supported the merger.

One group of employees that won’t be represented at this week’s lobbying events are US Airways’ fleet service workers and mechanics, represented by the International Association of Machinists. US Airways and the IAM have yet to reach an agreement on a new contract, and talks are now under the supervision of a federal mediator.

On Friday, US Airways IAM workers picketed in front of Charlotte Douglas, pressing the company to speed up the contract talks.

“All IAM members at US Airways stand in solidarity with the same goal; contracts now!” IAM District 142 President Tom Higginbotham said in a Sept. 10 statement. “US Airways needs to stop babbling about this merger circus and do what’s right by IAM members at US Airways.”

One Charlotte-based US Airways employee said the fleet service workers and mechanics were upset that US Airways CEO Doug Parker reached tentative contract terms with American employees while they still don’t have a deal. American is currently in bankruptcy.

“We’ve been left on the sidelines, talked to the very last,” said the employee, who asked not to be named because he isn’t authorized to speak with the press. “It has gone on, like, indefinitely.”

“(Parker’s) talking to a bankrupt airline and offering them money instead of cutting contracts with his own people,” said the employee. “That’s the very frustrating part for us.”

The IAM represents 14,000 mechanics and fleet service workers at the airline, almost half of the airline’s 32,000 workers.

A US Airways spokeswoman said the airline is planning contract talks with the IAM in October and November, and looks forward to the negotiations.

Rally on Capitol Hill

Many US Airways employees insist the merger will be good for employees and the airline industry.

“The message is let us fly together. That’s kind of the mantra,” said James Ray, spokesman for the Charlotte-based US Airline Pilots Association. He’s heading to D.C. on Monday for the lobbying push. “It’s about trying to convince lawmakers that the merger will be good for competition.”

Ray said the employees have more than 200 appointments lined up Tuesday and Wednesday with members of Congress. “We want to try to set them at ease,” Ray said.

An employee rally is planned for Capitol Hill to cap off the lobbying push. The airlines are also sponsoring a letter-writing campaign, encouraging their 108,000 combined employees to send pre-written emails to elected officials expressing their support for the merger. As of Friday, US Airways said employees had sent nearly 75,000 messages.

Some lawmakers have said they disagree with the DOJ and encouraged the agency to drop its lawsuit.

“This is yet another attempt by the administration to stifle business and free enterprise and instead create needless government over-regulation,” Texas Rep. Michael Burgess, a Republican, said in a letter earlier this month to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

Employees who are planning going to lobby this week said they hope lawmakers will pressure the DOJ to settle with US Airways and American quickly and head off a trial.

“Anytime you can settle something, it would be great,” said Bossi, of the flight attendants group.

The airlines and many of their employees say that combining the No. 3 and No. 5 carriers, American and US Airways, would actually create a more competitive environment by giving United and Delta Air Lines a third mega-competitor.

More than 7,400 US Airways employees are based in Charlotte, the airline’s busiest hub. After the American merger, Charlotte would be the combined carrier’s second-busiest hub, behind Dallas/Fort Worth.

US Airways, as the smallest of the so-called legacy carriers, has traditionally paid its employees less than industry average wages in order to stay competitive. One of the major selling points for the merger to employees was the promise of higher wages and a more stable career, along with no job cuts for non-corporate employees.

Airline employees have also endured thousands of layoffs as US Airways, American and every other legacy airline went through bankruptcy since 2001.

A federal bankruptcy court judge has approved American’s merger plan with US Airways, and the Justice Department challenge is now the only remaining hurdle.

The Justice Department also opposed the 2001 US Airways-United merger, which soon fell apart. But the agency didn’t oppose the 2008 Delta-Northwest merger, the 2010 merger of United and Continental, or Southwest’s acquisition of AirTran in 2011.

Some airline employees say that feels personal. “You can’t combine all these guys and then say stop,” said Bossi. “This is the second time they’ve done it.”

Arizona, Florida, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia, D.C. and Michigan have also joined the Justice Department in its lawsuit.

Roger Holmin, Association of Flight Attendants president, said he plans to tell lawmakers that blocking the merger will hurt employees.

“The DOJ has basically declared war on workers,” said Holmin, who is based in Philadelphia and has an office in Charlotte. He’s also meeting with state attorneys general, including those of North Carolina, Tennessee and Pennsylvania.

“They spend a lot of time talking about the consumer, and they overlook the fact that employees who stand to get gains once the merger is complete are also consumers,” said Holmin.

Portillo: 704-358-5041; Twitter @ESPortillo
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