No Rush in Union Talks at Alaska Airlines

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.

Airlines are covered by the Railway Labor Act. Contracts signed under that act never expire, but simply live on after their term until a new contract is approved or the union strikes. Because a strike can have far-reaching effects on commerce, the Railway Labor Act requires both sides to engage in long-term mediated talks before they reach an impasse. All three of Alaska's union groups without new contracts are in mediated talks.

If the National Mediation Board finally declares an impasse, the union is free to strike after a 30-day cooling-off period. But President Bush also may appoint an emergency board, which may impose further cool-down periods before the union gains permission to halt work.

Gaining that permission might be difficult or impossible in Alaska's case because the airline furnishes the sole major air service to a dozen isolated Alaska communities with no other easy link to the rest of the country.

The recent history of union strikes against airlines gives them scant encouragement that even if they gain permission to strike they'll be able to shut down the carrier.

Union mechanics struck last summer at Northwest Airlines, but the airline was able to keep flying by hiring nonunion workers to replace the strikers.

Alaska's flight attendants union, the Association of Flight Attendants, moved last week to brandish its sword toward the airline. The union's Master Executive Council called for members to approve a strike authorization, a necessary first step in the arduous process of going on strike.

Veda Shook, Alaska Airlines Master Executive Council president, said the union likely will take that vote after the late February mediation session.

Shook said the airline's improved profitability should allow it to treat its frontline workers more generously.

"Our CEO has publicly stated that last year's success was a result of the sacrifices made by the employees, and that we will be the ones who ultimately benefit from this," Shook said. "And yet they are still coming to us and asking for more.

"Flight attendants have already sacrificed so much for the success of this company and we deserve a fair contract. Enough is enough."

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