Second Time the Charm for Virgin America Flight Attendants (UPDATED)

Bruce Vail

Virgin America flight attendant Armando Fierros says that he supports a union to improve conditions for all his colleagues, no matter their seniority level in the company.

UPDATE: The Transportation Workers Union (TWU) has won an election to represent 828 flight attendants at Virgin America. A representative of the TWU who observed the count at the Washington, D.C. headquarters of the National Mediation Board reports that the final vote was 430 in favor of joining TWU, and 307 opposed. According to a victory statement released by the TWU, the first contract negotiations between management and workers will begin in the fall.

Despite previous setbacks, flight attendants at Virgin America are moving to establish the first labor union at the company.

More than 50 percent of Virgin’s estimated 800 attendants have signed authorization cards with the Transport Workers Union (TWU); those cards were submitted last month to the federal government’s National Mediation Board, says TWU Vice President Thom McDaniel. McDaniel expects the Mediation Board to establish a mail-in balloting schedule soon, which is expected to culminate in a final vote count in the second half of July.

If successful, TWU will become the first union at the Burlingame, California-based Virgin, which began operation in 2007 with a specific anti-union slant. The company currently employs about 2,700 pilots, flight attendants and other staff, but none have successfully organized; TWU is the first union to try to do so. Even so, the recent victory of the Air Line Pilots Association in a union election at non-union JetBlue Airways is creating renewed optimism among union organizers in the airline sector, McDaniel says.

Last month’s card submission to the Mediation Board was the second time TWU has sought a government-supervised election at Virgin. In December 2011, TWU was defeated in its first election effort following a heavy-handed anti-union campaign by Virgin. It was a bitter turn of events for the union, with 324 flight attendants voting against TWU, and only 223 voting in favor.

But a lot has changed since then, McDaniel says. The company has grown substantially, including a nearly 30 percent increase in the flight attendant workforce. Furthermore, Virgin has turned the corner from being a money-leaking startup to a profitable corporation with ambitious plans. Virgin spokesperson Jennifer Thomas confirms that the company hopes to add 10 new planes to its existing fleet of 53 over the next two years; she also says Virgin reported its first full-year profit in 2013.

Even so, Thomas also says Virgin intends to fight the new union campaign. In an e-mail to In These Times, she stated:

Since our launch, we’ve built a different kind of airline from the ground up, and we believe we got where we are today in large part because we’ve worked together as one team with a common focus on making flying good again. It is our view that a third-party like the TWU would only detract from that … We’re confident we’ll see a similar [election] outcome this time.

That confidence is presumably bolstered by Virgin’s anti-union campaign, which organizers report is under way once again. A website called Keep it Virgin” has been revived from 2011 and is churning out new material attacking TWU. Additionally, McDaniel says Virgin has brought back the anti-union law firm Ford & Harrison, which was active in fighting the union during the first election.

Virgin’s continued opposition notwithstanding, TWU organizers have been heartened by a shift in sentiment among the flight attendants. In interviews with In These Times, two activist flight attendants — who asked not to be named for fear of retribution from Virgin managers — say that though they voted against TWU representation in 2011, they’re enthusiastic supporters of the union now. And they’re not alone: both report that growing complaints about work schedules and related employment rules are driving a majority of workers to organize.

Salary, especially given the company’s recent expansion, weighs heavily on the employees’ minds. Independent analysis places Virgin at the low end of the pay scale in the airline industry. In the past, workers say they were willing to overlook this as the startup company struggled to gain a foothold in the market; now, though, flight attendants expect to share in Virgin’s newfound prosperity.

The wage issue, however, is only one factor in the workers’ discontent. According to one attendant, the company is also notorious for capriciously changing its policies or enforcing existing rules on an arbitrary basis. That’s been our major complaint from day one,” he says. Though Virgin promised to address those issues in response to TWU’s 2011 campaign, he continues, it did no such thing. In fact, Four months after that election, things started going backward,” he tells In These Times.

This campaign is not at all about wages,” the other attendant agrees. If you don’t do things [at work] to the letter, they throw the book at you … Firings are commonplace.” When it comes to policies that can be standardized by a union contract, he says, It’s clear we need a level playing field.”

If they win in July, the pro-union Virgin flight attendants will join attendants at Southwest Airlines and Allegiant Air as bargaining groups represented by TWU. Southwest, with some 10,500 TWU members, has long been represented by the union; the much smaller Allegiant unit voted to join TWU in 2010. In addition to the organizing campaign at Virgin, TWU also expects to launch a similar effort among JetBlue Airways attendants before the end of the year, McDaniel says.

Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.
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