May 09--The International Brotherhood of Teamsters will challenge for union representation at US Airways, and perhaps soon at American Airlines, as the fight for a shrinking number of aerospace mechanics rages on.
The Teamsters union said Tuesday it has collected 2,800 signatures, far more than its needs to force a vote of more than 4,500 mechanics at US Airways represented by the International Association of Machinists.
The move is important in Tulsa because American Airlines will soon merge with US Airways, and eventually mechanics at both airlines will work as one group.
The Teamsters union is also making a bid for 11,000 mechanics at American Airlines, including more than 5,000 at the Tulsa Maintenance & Engineering Center. Union organizers have been in town for months knocking on doors and making phone calls to local workers.
"Unions tend to fight among themselves about who gets the members, and it often turns very sordid," said Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. "It's one thing to be campaigning against management, but when they campaign against other unions, they tend to focus on the dark side of the other unions."
The Teamsters announcement adds momentum to the union's goal to eventually represent all mechanics at the new American Airlines Group Inc.
And at some point after the merger, American Airlines and US Airways mechanics will need to choose which union they want to represent the combined work groups.
Bill Wheeler, an American Airlines mechanic in Tulsa who is helping the Teamsters organization effort, was among those who spoke at a Teamsters news conference in Charlotte, N.C., on Tuesday.
"We, the mechanic and related at American Airlines, are also seeking to change union representation to the Teamsters," Wheeler said. "We hope to file very soon. With the pending merger we have the potential of becoming the largest airline in the country backed by the strongest union in the airline industry to negotiate strong contracts."
The Teamsters union, which has been organizing American Airlines maintenance workers since last summer, said it has collected nearly enough signatures to force a representation election at the company, just months before the merger with US Airways to create the world's largest airline.
The Airline Mechanics Fraternal Association, which is also organizing American Airlines mechanics, also says it plans to submit signatures in the coming weeks.
The mechanics and related group at US Airways is in the process of negotiating a new contract with the company. American Airlines mechanics negotiated a new contract last summer that included raises but major hits to pension benefits.
"When you do have very contentious bargaining, one union will step in and say that they can do a better job," Chaison said. "But even if that union wins, the old union will still be around. The new union might have to do some grandstanding with management to look good."
But even though the Teamsters union says it has enough signatures, challenging an incumbent union can be tough. To even force a vote, a union group needs to collect the signatures of the majority of members in a work group asking for a new election and submit those to the National Mediation Board. The board and the company get to check over those signatures to make sure they match the work group.
If the union fails to submit enough signatures, it is banned from submitting them again for a year.
If the signatures pass muster, a representation vote could come in about two to three months.
AMFA says it has enough signatures to challenge but is waiting until the end of the month for a group of former TWA mechanics in St. Louis to drop off the eligibility rolls to bring the total workforce number down by 500.
The Transport Workers Union, which currently represents American Airlines mechanics, lashed out at the Teamsters after the announcement, accusing the union of trying to sway workers during the uncertainty of a merger.
"As a trade unionist, I'm outraged and disgusted that the Teamsters plan to waste the time and resources of their members in an unprincipled raid against union members at US Airways," said Garry Drummond, TWU air transport division director, in a statement. "Let's call this what it is: The (Teamsters union is) behaving like a parasite. They are desperately attempting to feed off another organization to cover up their own failures."
AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka asked leaders at both unions to consider jointly representing employees at American and US Airways. He said he was concerned that a bitter fight would only hurt the organized labor movement and, in the end, both unions.
The TWU and International Association of Machinists are AFL-CIO members, which prohibits each group from trying to organize workers from other AFL-CIO unions.
The Teamsters left the AFL-CIO in 2005, allowing the union to recruit potential members from any other labor group.
Airline mechanics unions
Transport Workers Union of America
Headquarters: Washington, D.C.
Mechanics represented: American Airlines, American Eagle
History: The Transport Workers Union represents nearly 11,000 mechanics & related workers at American Airlines and has been a bargaining group with the company since 1946. More than 5,000 employees at the Tulsa Maintenance and Engineering Base are TWU members. TWU mechanics signed a new contract with American Airlines in August that gave raises but froze pension benefits.
International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers
Headquarters: Upper Marlboro, Md.
Mechanics represented: US Airways, Boeing
Background: The IAM represents the 4,000 maintenance workers at US Airways. Even though the group isn't actively lobbying American Airlines mechanics, leaders say it plans to fight to be the bargaining unit for mechanics when the airlines merge later this year.
Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association
Companies represented: Southwest Airlines, Alaska Airlines
Background: AMFA organizers have been working to change labor representation at American Airlines since 1998 and submitted signatures to force a vote but did not collect the required number for a representation election.
International Brotherhood of Teamsters
Members: 1.4 million
Headquarters: Washington, D.C.
Mechanics represented: United Airlines, Continental Airlines
Background: One of the largest unions in the country, the Teamsters started organizing in Tulsa in June 2012 at the behest of local mechanics during American Airlines' bankruptcy proceedings and new contract negotiations.
Kyle Arnold 918-581-8380
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