As America West Airlines Holdings Corp. shareholders vote today on whether to approve the airline's proposed merger with US Airways Group Inc., two unions representing the companies' customer-service workers plan to join forces for bargaining purposes.
The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which represents 3,500 customer-service workers at America West, and the Communications Workers of America, which represents 6,000 passenger agents at US Airways, will form the Airline Customer Service Employee Association-IBT/CWA, the unions said yesterday.
Union locals involved in the two airlines must approve the alliance, and will vote via mail-in ballots in the coming weeks.
In another development, America West's flight attendants, dissatisfied with their contract talks, plan to stage a protest at today's shareholder meeting. They also asked the National Mediation Board to intervene. The CWA represents flight attendants at both airlines.
Airline analysts and executives have said the chief challenges in combining the airlines would be the integration of the two workforces and the resolution of such labor issues as seniority.
"The fact that they have joined together is an encouraging sign. The only thing that makes sense is cooperation," said Michael Roach, a San Francisco airline consultant who was a cofounder of America West.
Roach said "management is almost a bystander" because it can't coerce workers to get along. It can take years for workforces to integrate, even if they belong to the same union.
America West spokesman Carlo Bertolini said: "We would view it as a positive situation that workers from both sides are already engaging in dialogue about what's important to them."
To labor scholars, an interesting twist is the two unions' opposing positions in the recent split in the AFL-CIO. The Teamsters joined the Change to Win Coalition and quit the AFL-CIO, while the CWA firmly supports the AFL-CIO's leadership.
"It certainly complicates things that they are on opposite sides of this somewhat ugly split in the labor movement," said Paul Clark, a Pennsylvania State University professor of industrial relations.
The unions involved say the proposed alliance shows that the two sides can work together despite the split.
"This is a great example of unions working together in the best interests of their members," Teamsters spokeswoman Leigh Strope said. "It knocks down the popular perception that Change to Win and AFL-CIO unions are at war."
Presidents James Hoffa of the Teamsters and Larry Cohen of the CWA would take turns leading the combined group, with Cohen first.
US Airways' CWA workers are under a contract that expires in 2012. The Teamsters, who began representing America West customer-service workers in August 2004, have yet to negotiate a contract.
The alliance will negotiate on behalf of all workers, but day-to-day representation will be handled by the CWA in the Eastern United States, where it has the most members, and by the Teamsters in the West.