Police are investigating the beating of five union organizers, and whether the attack was carried out by two dozen members of a union that wants to represent the same US Airways workers.
Two men were treated at Methodist Hospital after the attack Wednesday morning at the Philadelphia Airport Marriott hotel. Bottles and chairs were thrown during the attack against organizers from the Transport Workers Union, said Capt. Michael Sinclair of the Southwest Detective Division.
"There has not been violence on this scale in air labor affairs for close to 50 years," James Little, acting TWU president, said in a statement. "Wednesday's attack is a throwback to an era that should have been closed long ago."
Police were looking at hotel videotapes and trying to determine whether the attackers were from the International Association of Machinists, which represents US Airways baggage handlers in Philadelphia.
The unions are competing over which will represent all 6,600 baggage handlers at US Airways, which merged last year with America West Airlines.
"The IAM is investigating the reported incident and is determined to uncover all the facts," said Joseph Tiberi, spokesman for the machinists' union.
The organizers were in Philadelphia, a US Airways hub, to campaign for a potential election. They had invited IAM members to informational sessions at the hotel Tuesday and Wednesday.
Little called for a federal investigation and demanded that IAM and US Airways fire anyone involved.
US Airways spokesman Carlo Bertolini said the incident did not represent how US Airways and America West employees have dealt with each other since the companies began merging operations in late September.
W. Douglas Parker, the airline's chief executive officer, had said before the merger that the "biggest issue we're going to face is the cultural integration of the two companies."
Other unionized US Airways workforces have been able to merge without incident.
The IAM represents the baggage handlers originally from US Airways - the airline's majority; the TWU represents about 2,000 originally from America West. On Jan. 30, a decision by the National Mediation Board set the stage for the unions to petition for a runoff election.
One of the injured organizers, who asked that his name not be used because he feared retaliation, said he and his fellow organizers had been warned at a campaign stop at US Airways' Boston facilities on Monday to expect trouble in Philadelphia.
They figured on some tough talk, he said, but no violence. On Wednesday morning, according to Little and the organizer, local IAM officials entered their conference room near the lobby and warned them to get out of town. Then a mob entered the room and started throwing punches - and chairs, tables and glasses - they said.
"All five TWU organizers were injured, two suffering serious eye injuries. While the beatings continued, TWU organizing files were stolen by the perpetrators," Little said in a statement.
The organizers tried to escape into the catering corridor behind the conference rooms, but were pursued, the organizer said. Eventually, an alarm was sounded when they tried to open another door, and hotel security arrived.
Hotel security video cameras caught some of the participants on tape, and police, the organizers, and US Airways officials were working to identify the assailants, the organizer said. Police said no arrests have been made.
The incident comes at a tense time, not only for the unions but for the labor movement in general, which is under pressure as its membership declines as a percentage of the workforce.
Alice Hoffman, a labor historian and former Pennsylvania State University professor, and Ross Koppel, a University of Pennsylvania sociologist, said yesterday that inter-union attacks occurred less frequently now, but always had been unusual.
"When you think of unions and violence, you think of violence against unions by boss goons, or you think of union violence against scabs," Koppel said. "But you don't think generally of inter-union violence."
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