A dispute between the unions representing flight attendants at US Airways and American Airlines went public Wednesday, with dueling letters flying between their presidents about who will ultimately represent workers in the combined company.
The conflict is the first crack in the labor solidarity that helped propel the $17.2-billion merger past a Justice Department challenge to success. It illustrates some of the challenges that lie ahead for US Airways and American Airlines, as they combine more than 100,000 employees represented by different unions, with different contracts, into a single workforce.
The merger is on track to close in December, creating the world’s largest airline. At the heart of the labor dispute is which union will represent the flight attendants at the combined carrier.
Laura Glading is president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which represents about 16,000 American flight attendants. Wednesday, she sent an open letter to the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents about 8,000 US Airways flight attendants. About 2,200 US Airways flight attendants are based in Charlotte.
She said APFA leaders voted to discontinue negotiations for unifying the flight attendant groups, in part because the AFA “began to raid us and mislead our membership with a coordinated propaganda campaign.”
“No sooner had the ink dried on the Justice Department’s settlement than AFA-CWA ramped up the kind of divisive rhetoric and tactics that are crippling the labor movement,” wrote Glading.
The AFA, which is under the AFL-CIO, wants to combine with flight attendants from American and create a new union, then negotiate a new contract for both groups. The APFA wants to absorb the US Airways membership into its own union.
“I’m still convinced if we put our egos aside we can make it work,” said Roger Holmin, president of the AFA’s master executive council, from his Charlotte office. Holmin, an enthusiastic proponent of the merger, denied that he’s leading a campaign to raid APFA and get union members.
“There is a grassroots effort of American flight attendants soliciting (authorization) cards” expressing their support for a vote on which union to choose, Holmin said.
But he said that if US Airways flight attendants are represented by APFA, they will go under the APFA’s conditional labor agreement, negotiated before the merger was finalized. Holmin said that contract has less favorable work rules than the US Airways contract.
“(Glading) wants to be the representative of all of the flight attendants,” said Holmin. “If that is the case, she’s going to suck 8,000 flight attendants into taking concessions. I refuse to allow American’s bankruptcy to define US Airways flight attendants.”
Glading told the Observer that she believes the AFA intentionally torpedoed its talks with her union through unreasonable demands, and that Holmin threw out months of negotiations and a prior tentative integration agreement with the union.
“There’s been a couple of people who are more interested in saving union jobs,” she said.
Both Glading and Holmin said they hope the unions can resume talks and come to a negotiated agreement.
Pilots for US Airways and America West never reached a plan to integrate their unions following the companies’ 2005 merger. A bitter seniority dispute between the unions ended up in court, and pilots from the two airlines still fly separate planes under separate contracts. It took more than seven years for US Airways and America West flight attendants to approve a unified contract after the merger.
US Airways spokeswoman Michelle Mohr declined to comment on the flight attendant dispute.
If the two unions don’t reach a voluntary agreement, Holmin said the flight attendants could hold an election to decide which union will represent them. The AFA would have to get signatures from 50 percent of the total combined 24,000 flight attendants to force an election between itself and APFA.
Portillo: 704-358-5041; Twitter: @ESPortillo
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