Baggage handlers, cargo agents and other "under the wing" employees at Continental Airlines will begin voting this week on whether to join the Transport Workers Union of America.
"The mood is, we want a contract, and the only way to get it is to join a union," said Sam Arnold, a customer service representative and 16-year Continental employee.
The election covers 7,500 Continental ground workers across the country, including 525 at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport.
Workers can cast ballots beginning Thursday through Oct. 12. Voting is by telephone in an electronic system set up by the National Mediation Board, the federal agency that oversees collective bargaining issues for the airline and rail industries.
Arnold and another customer service representative at Hopkins, Mark Cline, said Monday that fleet service workers took the biggest hit when Continental made across-the-board cuts in wages and benefits last year. They estimated the combined annual loss at roughly $7,500 per worker.
Continental spokeswoman Julie King would not address specifics of the reductions but said all employees took them.
"They allowed us to survive through difficult times and have in turn enabled us to add new jobs, order new aircraft and successfully embark on one of the largest international expansions in our company's history," she said.
Continental last week announced new nonstop service between Cleveland and Paris. The airline also is seeking federal approval for a Cleveland-Newark-Shanghai route.
The wage and benefit changes were part of $500 million in savings that the Houston carrier sought as it faced continued operating losses and soaring jet fuel prices.
Wages for Continental ground workers sank from second among their counterparts at major carriers to seventh, TWU President Jim Little said. There was no snap-back provision to restore wages once the company returned to profitability, he said.
Continental in August reported its best second-quarter profit in more than 10 years. The turnabout was linked to brisk passenger demand coupled with labor costs lowered through concessions.
Several unions, including TWU, have tried without success almost annually for the past 11 years to organize Continental's fleet service workers, King said. Seventy-five percent to 80 percent of fleet service workers at major carriers are in the TWU or another union, Little said.
TWU fell 300 votes short in a bid last year. Employees who don't vote are counted as opposing the union, which is prompting the TWU to plan an ad in The Plain Dealer for later this week urging the ground workers to vote.
Organizer Jeff Osborne said one worry is a possible Continental merger with United or another airline. Continental insists that it wants to keep growing alone, but speculation on a merger persists.
With a union contract, workers would have more protection against downsizing, such as the right to transfer to another airport in the event of staff cuts, Osborne said.
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