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Working In These Times

Friday, Dec 9, 2011, 4:36 pm

Under Cloud of Bankruptcy, CWA Will Try (Again) to Unionize American Airlines Workers

BY Mike Elk

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On Wednesday, the Communication Workers of America (CWA) filed a federal petition to hold a union election for 9,700 customer service workers who work at American Airlines call centers and flight gates. The workers are the only remaining large sector of the airline that is not unionized. As American Airlines enters bankruptcy, customer service workers' fight to unionize will be vitally important to already unionized workers looking to protect their pensions, healthcare and wages.

AA filed for bankruptcy last week in a move that could help them gut pensions and get out of other contract obligations, as Working In These Times contributor Josh Eidelson wrote last week. CWA claims that American Airlines is currently holding $4.1 billion in cash on hand and that despite this, it’s looking to increase profits by using the bankruptcy process to cut its labor costs, which are among the highest in its industry. Workers are hoping that organizing with CWA may help them fight potential cuts.

"I'm on board, and looking forward to CWA representation to help get us through the bankruptcy process,” said Latricia Beasley, a customer service worker from Dallas.
CWA has been trying to unionize the customer service workers since the 1990s. The new bankruptcy filing by American Airlines has given the union a renewed sense of organizing urgency. In 1998, CWA was unsuccessful in a previous union election with the same group of workers.

(Full disclosure: For two months in 2010, I covered CWA’s attempt to organize American Airlines workers for an internal newsletter funded by the union.)

Part of the reason CWA wasn't successful in the past was that old restrictive National Mediation Board (the federal agency that oversees airline and railroad union elections)  rules counted voters who did not vote in a union election as automatic “no” votes. This allegedly led to airline companies padding worker lists to include people who were no longer showing up for day-to-day to work, but had not technically terminated their contract. (This might include people who had been laid off, serving overseas in the military, or died.)

But new National Mediation Board rule changes issued under the Obama administration may make it easier for union organizers to win a victory at American Airlines. Under the new rules, a simple majority of "yes" votes over "no" votes is enough needed for workers to win a union. Since those rules went into effect, CWA has had some success organizing workers it previously couldn't. Last year, CWA successfully organized 3,000 workers at Piedmont Airlines (a subsidiary of US Airways), which I covered for Working In These Times last year.

Still, even with the new rules, organizing at AA will be a tough challenge. Many of the call center workers who work for the airline no longer work in a traditional workplace. And AA has farmed out much of its call-center work to home-based workers who use a Voice over Internet (VoIP) connection to answer customer calls; thus, many of those workers are isolated and feel little sense of workplace connection—a potential barrier to the solidarity needed for a union election drive to succeed.

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Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.

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