No Rush in Union Talks at Alaska Airlines

It's been more than three years since Alaska Airlines' nearly 2,900 union clerks, office workers and customer service agents have seen a cost-of-living raise.

Feb. 1--It's been more than three years since Alaska Airlines' nearly 2,900 union clerks, office workers and customer service agents have seen a cost-of-living raise, but the union that represents them is in no hurry to sign a new contract.

"In the airline business these days, it's a race to the bottom," said one union official. "It's a race no one wants to win."

Apprehension about possible wage cuts and benefit reductions that any new contract might bring gives the unions little incentive to reach a new agreement quickly. And the airline, after a rough ride since it replaced 472 Sea-Tac Airport union baggage handlers with contract workers early last summer, seems in no hurry to force the unions' hands.

The airline's clerical and customer service workers aren't alone in moving at a leisurely pace to reach an accord with Alaska. The airline's nearly 2,500 flight attendants have been talking with the company without success for more than two years about a new agreement. And more than 600 Alaska ramp service workers have operated without a new contract since Sept. 11, 2003.

While both company and union officials maintain they're actively bargaining, the pace of negotiations is hardly swift. The airline and the union representing its clerical and customer service workers, the International Association of Machinists, last met Nov. 17 in Las Vegas. No further negotiating sessions have been scheduled.

Alaska's flight attendant union last met with company negotiators Dec. 14-16 in Washington, D.C. A follow-up negotiating session isn't scheduled until Feb. 27. The IAM, which also represents the company's ramp service and warehouse workers, last had a formal negotiating session Dec. 19. The next session isn't scheduled until Feb. 21, more than two months after the last meeting.

The airline once had an ambitious plan to get unions to agree to cost-saving new contracts. Two-and-a-half years ago, when Alaska Chairman Bill Ayer announced his "2010" overhaul plan for the airline, he hoped unions would agree to new contracts within a few months. The plan's cost-cutting agenda included among other things $112 million in union cost savings.

The 2010 plan's cost reductions were designed to bring Alaska's per-passenger costs down to levels that would make the airline competitive with low-cost start-up carriers and financially reorganized traditional airlines.

Ayer achieved a big chunk of those reductions last spring when an arbitrator imposed a new contract on the airline's pilots. That contract cut average pilot wages by some 26 percent.

And the company saved some $13 million when it replaced its Sea-Tac baggage handlers in May with outside contract workers after union members rejected the airline's last contract offer.

While the contract saved the company some $14 million annually, customer service and safety problems nagged the company.

The airline's on-time record fell to the worst in the industry last summer. And ground-handling accidents after Christmas caused one plane to make an emergency landing and damaged another aircraft significantly.

Reaching agreement with the three remaining unions has proved elusive.

The flight attendants' negotiators reached a tentative deal for a five-year contract with Alaska last May, but 62 percent of union members rejected that agreement in a July vote.

The union memberships have nothing to lose by prolonging the process. With other airlines slashing employee compensation, the prospect for significant raises is small, and the likelihood of wage caps, benefit cuts and wage reductions is real.

Because of the unique legal framework that applies to airline union contracts and the generally poor financial health of the industry, unions have few weapons to deploy to force better compensation.

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