Airline Workers Protest In Bid To Prevent Outsourcing

July 30--About 100 United Airlines employees lined a main road leading to Bush Intercontinental Airport on Monday to protest the possible outsourcing of their jobs.

Union-represented employees waved signs -- such as "Outsourcing is wrong" and "United cares about its employees, until it can get 10 percent cheaper labor" -- at separate protests at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.

The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local 811 in a statement cited United's "aggressive approach to contracting out work that currently has limited or no protection" as the most pressing issue facing the 5,000 employees it represents at the Houston airport. Last August, union leaders held a similar protest to draw attention to United's plans to outsource cargo jobs.

Julio Jovel, 44, who has worked for the carrier for 12 years, including the pre-merger Continental Airlines, held his sign before his afternoon shift as a customer service agent.

"We have family, kids and bills to pay. No one feels safe," Jovel said. "They don't care about us. We want to show the company that we are united and will be fighting."

Union-represented employees earn an average hourly wage of $16 and receive health benefits. Wages are as high as $23 an hour for employees with 10 years of service.

Union leaders fear that outsourcing could drop wages to as low as $8 an hour. Contract companies also typically do not offer health insurance.

Contract negotiations

United spokeswoman Megan McCarthy said the company is in contract negotiations with the Houston airport employees, but she declined to elaborate on whether the talks would address outsourcing.

"As a company, we are focused on getting competitive bargaining agreement with the unions that represent our employees," McCarthy said.

Meanwhile, United recently announced plans to lay off much of its workforce in Rochester, N.Y., where the company is turning to an outside vendor for its customer service and ramp operations. Other United employees were let go in Albany, N.Y.

Protesting employees on Monday referenced congressional testimony by the leaders of United and Continental airlines that their merger would have minimal effect on frontline employees.

Biggest hub

Gary Welch, who has worked for the airlines for 17 years, said United's outsourcing plans at smaller airports did not bode well for its largest hub in Houston. He said the ramp and customer services departments, which can include cargo loading, cleaning, ticketing and fueling, can be considered a nonskilled labor force.

"We fear they do not value what we do," Welch said. "We hope we can send a message to the national team. ... We feel it's clear they want to make more at the expense of the workers."

The employees believe not only are jobs at stake but also customers' experience, as lower paid and less experienced workers don't perform as well.

"The problem is now we've been mislabeling animals and human remains, sending them to the wrong cities," said Jorge Bonilla, head of the grievance committee for the Local 811 union. "It has a negative impact to the consumer. The wages go down, and so does the quality of the airline."

Bonilla said he hopes to bring national attention to the outsourcing issue. He said he scheduled the protest on Monday because business fliers typically fly at the beginning of the work week.

He said union leaders also wrote letters to local Democratic U.S. Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee, Al Green and Gene Green.

"People are at the point when enough is enough," Bonilla said. "There is a product that is falling drastically because of vendors. They don't care about the airline as much as an in-house employee. ... When you are getting paid $11 an hour with no benefits, you don't have much vested in the job."

Copyright 2013 - Houston Chronicle