JetBlue May Face Machinists Election to Organize Baggage Handlers

JetBlue Airways Corp., the largest U.S. airline without unions, may face an International Association of Machinists election to organize the carrier's baggage handlers.

The Machinists, which represents baggage handlers at Northwest Airlines Corp. and UAL Corp.'s United Airlines, filed with the National Mediation Board Tuesday for the election, said Joe Tiberi, a union spokesman. To call a vote, the board must certify that the Machinists collected signatures from at least 35 percent of the workers.

JetBlue has kept expenses lower than some rivals' partly because the lack of union rules makes the airline more flexible in using workers. Tiberi said the Machinists also may seek to organize flight attendants, customer service agents and mechanics at the New York-based discount carrier.

"Just because they want to organize doesn't mean that it will happen," New York-based Calyon Securities analyst Ray Neidl said in an interview. "It would be a negative for JetBlue, but being a new carrier they wouldn't have all the built-up, wasteful work rules like the legacy carriers have."

JetBlue spokeswoman Jenny Dervin said that the company hadn't yet been notified of the Machinists' filing. The carrier was aware that some workers were discussing union representation, Dervin said. JetBlue has been open about its desire to talk directly with employees, without unions, while also recognizing workers' right to organize, she said.

The JetBlue workers want better vacation, sick leave and retirement benefits, Tiberi said in an interview. "This airline has been around for six years, and employees are now looking at long-term prospects, long-term careers," he said.

The Machinists union gathered enough signed authorization cards from workers to qualify for an election, Tiberi said. To win representation, more than half the bag handlers would have to vote for the union.

The National Mediation Board didn't immediately return a call seeking comment.

JetBlue, which began flying in 2000, pared its growth plans last month after a first-quarter loss of $32 million, mainly on higher fuel costs. The carrier's cost for flying a seat one mile was 7.84 cents in the first quarter, compared with 10.81 cents at American Airlines and 8.7 cents at Southwest Airlines Co.

The largest U.S. carriers, sometimes referred to as legacy airlines, must obey work rules in union contracts specifying the tasks employees may perform. For instance, there are rules that forbid mechanics from doing bag handlers' duties.

JetBlue and the union both declined to comment on the number of baggage handlers at the airline.

The carrier has about 3,000 airport workers, including bag handlers, counter and gate agents, and workers who restock planes, Dervin said. Overall, the airline has about 10,000 full- and part-time employees.

"We don't feel that third-party representation is in the best interests of crew members," Dervin said. JetBlue's airport workers are able to shift among jobs, learning different duties and gaining experience, she said.

Unions represent a majority of workers at United, Northwest and AMR Corp.'s American. Pilots are the only major work group in a union at Delta Air Lines Inc. Continental Airlines Inc. has 44 percent of its workers in unions. Southwest, the biggest discount carrier, has 82 percent of its employees in unions.

Shares of JetBlue fell 52 cents to close at $9.69 Tuesday on the Nasdaq Stock Market. The stock has declined 28 percent in the past year.

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