After a brawl between rival unions, US Airways unjustly fired 22 union members - many of them leaders - in an attempt to systematically eliminate union representation, according to a lawsuit filed against the airline in federal court yesterday.
The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers' lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia, says that organizers from the Transport Workers Union started the violence and that the machinists acted only in self-defense.
US Airways says the suit is without merit.
Five TWU organizers were beaten, allegedly by the machinists, during a meeting Feb. 8 at the Philadelphia Airport Marriott. The brawl also involved about 25 machinists' union members, according to an affidavit signed by one of the TWU organizers. Both unions want to represent baggage handlers under the new US Airways, which merged last year with America West Airlines.
"The firings are an attempt to undermine the machinists' union at US Airways," said Stephen "Randy" Canale, of Havertown, general chairman of the segment of the union that represents 5,500 active and furloughed US Airways baggage handlers.
"This lawsuit has absolutely no merit," US Airways spokesman Philip Gee said in a statement. "US Airways terminated 22 employees after a thorough investigation revealed that they were involved in an assault of TWU representatives," who were not US Airways employees.
"Our investigation revealed no credible evidence that the TWU representatives instigated the violent altercation," he wrote. "US Airways has zero tolerance for acts of violence, intimidation, and harassment against or by any employee. The terminated employees were dealt with accordingly."
Two TWU organizers wound up in the hospital. The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office is still investigating, a spokeswoman said yesterday.
"Just because you are in a hospital being treated doesn't mean you are right," Canale said. His workers also were injured.
According to the lawsuit, the TWU organizers tried to force machinists' union members to leave the meeting and "physically assaulted some... . As a result of this unprovoked assault, a fight broke out."
David Rosen, general counsel for the TWU, laughed when he heard the complaint. "It sounds like I'm getting Bizarro-world version of the facts," he said.
The TWU organizer's affidavit, filed the day of the incident, said that "a crowd of 25 men from the lobby burst through the doors of the meeting room. The men picked up the chairs and threw them at us. They punched us and kicked us and broke glass and furniture."
The TWU represents about 2,400 baggage handlers originally with America West. The machinists' union represents original US Airways baggage handlers, the majority.
Canale said the implications of the airline's actions went beyond firing workers in a fight. The US Airways workers were attending a union meeting, were not on company time, and were not on company property, so the company should not interfere, he said.
"If I am in a bar fight, does US Airways have a right to discipline me?" he asked.
Many of those fired were shop stewards and union leaders and now are not allowed on US Airways property to represent workers, in violation of the union's contract, Canale said.
Canale said he thought the airline was trying to weaken the machinists' union to discourage turnout at a pending representation election. If fewer than half vote, the workers lose their union status.
That happened in an earlier merger, he said, and "US Airways wants history to repeat itself."
The lawsuit asks for the 22 workers, all longtime employees, to be reinstated immediately and compensated for their losses.
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