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International President Samuelsen Featured in Forbes
Posted On: Feb 03, 2018
International President John Samuelsen is featured in Forbes today, speaking on the unionization of the airline industry. Check out the full article below, or read it online here.
JetBlue, United and Delta Face Union Pressure as Airlines Remain A Labor Stronghold
Despite being under attack throughout the U.S., the labor movement remains active in the airline industry, which is experiencing the highest profits in its history.
U.S. airlines have been profitable since 2010, reaching a record $25.6 billion in 2015 profits. Typically, carriers have passed gains on to workers in the form of better contracts and, in the case of American, the biggest carrier, even awarding raises beyond what it negotiated. American is 85% unionized.
Airline labor gains seem to belie continuing Republican efforts to limit labor protections, primarily by seeking legislation and court decisions that impose right to work laws, which enable union benefits without union dues.
Currently, unions await National Mediation Board decisions whether to hold elections for flight attendants at JetBlue and for catering workers at United. On Wednesday JetBlue pilots, impatient with the pace of contract talks, staged a large demonstration at the carrier’s Long Island City, N.Y. headquarters. And organizing efforts continue at JetBlue and Delta.
JetBlue is the primary battleground. The carrier began flying in 2000 and managed to avoid having labor unions on the property until 2014, when the Air Line Pilots Association organized pilots. Pilot contract negotiations began in March 2015.
On Wednesday, about 700 of the carrier’s 3,500 pilots demonstrated, ALPA said.
“We are frustrated with the pace of negotiations,” said Patrick Walsh, chairman of JetBlue’s ALPA chapter. “It shouldn’t take this long.”
In December, the Transport Workers Union filed with the NMB for an election for JetBlue’s 5,000 flight attendants. TWU is looking ahead to organizing mechanics and agents, while the International Association of Machinists wants to organize the carrier’s 2,500 fleet service workers.
For labor, “the corner has been turned on JetBlue,” said TWU President John Samuelsen. “We’re getting tremendous positive feedback” from flight attendants, he said.
Meanwhile Unite Here filed last week for an election for United’s 2,700 catering workers.
Unite Here said 76% of the workers signed cards. (The requirement is that 50% plus one sign cards.) “They’re the airline’s only non-managerial, frontline employees who remain non-union,” the union said in a prepared statement.
The election, if it is authorized by the NMB, “will be one of the largest in the Newark, Houston, and Denver labor markets in nearly a decade, and the first at United since the elections necessitated by the United/Continental merger,” Unite Here said.
United employs 1,100 catering workers in Newark, 800 in Houston and 600 in Denver. Nearly 80% of its 88,000 workers are unionized.
“United Airlines respects our employees’ rights to decide whether labor union representation is likely to serve the best interests of our employees and their families,” said United spokesman Frank Benenati.
At Delta, only pilots and dispatchers, who account for 18% of the workforce, are unionized. Unions have been frustrated by a long series of failed efforts to organize other workers.
Still, the IAM continues organizing efforts among flight attendants and fleet service workers.
“We have a coordinated campaign to finally bring representation to both groups,” said IAM spokesman Joe Tiberi. “Since summer, we have been getting more and more cards from both.”
Delta spokeswoman Ashley Black said, “While we respect our employee’s right to decide whether unionization is best for them, we believe that a direct relationship is the strongest voice you can have.”
In April 2015, an IAM effort to unionize Delta’s 20,000 flight attendants ended when the NMB asked the U.S. Justice Department to review the mysterious case of thousands of fraudulent signatures on the cards requesting a union election. The IAM had said it submitted nearly 12,000 signed cards.
The union and the airline each blamed the other side for the fraud and applauded the call for an investigation. But no results have been announced. On Wednesday, a DOJ spokesman declined to comment.
Black said that following the election, “The NMB submitted the case to the DOJ for a criminal investigation, where it remains.” She called the union’s filing “attempted fraud.”
As for JetBlue pilots, under the auspices of an NMB mediator, the two parties are discussing wages and benefits, normally the last step in contract talks.
“This is our first contract,” CEO Robin Hayes said on the carrier’s Jan. 25th earnings call. “This is something we are building from scratch. It’s not just a question of amending a contract, it’s actually every single page – it just takes time.”
Walsh, a Boston-based Embraer 190 captain, said JetBlue pilots want to be paid like pilots at the four largest airlines.
“We’re the fifth largest carrier,” Walsh said. “We expect to be paid comparably to airline pilots who fly the same aircraft on the same routes. All of the airlines are making decent profits and other work groups, pilots especially, have gotten great contracts.”