By Jon Hillson

More on the UAL labor struggles
Tensions between United Airlines, the world’s biggest carrier, and members of the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA) and the International Association of Machinists continue, spurred by a contract dispute that is making national headlines.
The ALPA agreement, covering 10,500 pilots, expired in April, while the IAM contracts for 44,000 mechanics, customer service, ramp and cleaners came due in early July. The UAL pact with unionized flight attendants ends in several years.
The conflict unfolds as labor celebrates several recent accomplishments. These include the successful East Coast strike by 86,000 Verizon workers, the defeat of company giveback demands by coal miners in Wyoming and New Mexico, an important union organizing victory by St. Paul, Minnesota packinghouse workers, the triumph of Janitors for Justice in Los Angeles, and increasing steps for union organization by nearly 1,000 LAX bag checkers.


In the 1994 contracts, the IAM and ALPA coughed up more than $4 billion in wage and benefit concessions to bail out the airline through an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP). This allocated shares in the company to participating union members who now supposedly “owned” UAL.
Negotiations with ALPA began 20 months ago. The IAM started formal talks last December. Prior to and hidden from these discussions, however, UAL opened negotiations to purchase US Airways.
United announced a cash offer of $4.3 billion for its weaker rival, boosted by a $3 billion loan. This serves to cover UAL’s bid of $60 a share for US Airways stock, which has settled in at $37. Christian charity was not the reason for this generous proposal.
US Airways carries $7.3 billion in debt and leases, while United’s liabilities, according to the Financial Times of London, amount to $16.5 billion. This would put the new airline’s debt at $26.8 billion, greater than the combined 1999 revenues of the carriers. Top US Airways and United executives garnered salary and compensation packages of up to $20 million last year.
After months of UAL hype about a “seamless contract”—a new agreement overlapping the old pact—the reality of United’s top priority, the US Air acquisition, with tens of thousands of its workers footing the bill, made itself felt. It also shed light on the hoax of “employee ownership.”


Members of ALPA began rejecting overtime in May. Instead of responding to a pilot shortage by hiring new flight personnel—as suggested earlier by ALPA—United continued overbooking trips while canceling thousands more, making life miserable for passengers already angered over their treatment by the carrier.
In July, an overwhelming majority of IAM mechanics began declining overtime, while at the same time working with pilots to ensure that departing planes were thoroughly checked for safety.
Given United’s packed scheduling scheme, this resulted in widespread delays. Only a small fraction of UAL flights have arrived or departed on time this summer.


On August 14, UAL officials “indefinitely suspended” 108 LAX mechanics who had called in absent using sick days.
A week after this union-busting act, 72 IAM members had been recalled. The remainder face disciplinary action. Similar occurrences took place earlier this summer in other UAL hubs, but without such sanctions.
At a mid-August series of meetings with management-invited employees - many of them union members, but virtually excluding pilots and mechanics - top corporate executives sought shift blame for the current situation from the carrier to ALPA.


United, backed by US Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater—who recently convened a summit of airline bosses, government officials, and union representatives to discuss the larger crisis of US air travel—is pressing for ALPA to settle before the end of the heavily trafficked Labor Day weekend. Travel to Sydney for the 2000 Olympics, for which UAL is the official US airline, has already begun, and peaks in early September.
Kathie White, a spokesperson for ALPA, told the New York Times that “major issues remaining are big.” These include, she stated, wages, benefits, working conditions and job security. Senior representatives of the pilots and UAL are currently involved in talks in Chicago, in which federal mediators have been participating.
Between the 1994 concessions and inflation during the last six years, wages have declined by as much as 30 percent for UAL unionized employees. In lieu of a more than 14 percent wage giveback then, IAM members received stock- and for the first time earlier this year began getting dividend checks. Amounts have ranged from several hundred dollars to a few pennies, with more to pilots, because of larger concessions made by ALPA. The stock cannot be sold, and is subject to heavy penalties, as well as taxes, for workers who quit prior to retirement.
Some pilots and IAM members who originally supported the ESOP as the goose that would lay the golden egg now view it as the chicken coming home to roost - with the US Airways purchase in its beak. They worry about layoffs that inevitably follow mergers and acquisitions. This was most recently demonstrated by the Bank of America/NationsBank downsizing of 10,000 workers as a result of their 1998 consolidation.


In an effort to minimize the impact of the overtime refusal and weaken the effect of solidarity between pilots and mechanics, UAL bosses at six hubs, including LAX, declared an “operational emergency” on August 21. This imposed mandatory overtime on mechanics, subject to discharge. Top IAM officials announced they would file a grievance against the order. On August 25, LAX mechanics reported an apparent withdrawal of the order, later confirmed in the media.
Customer service representatives, the newest, largest and lowest paid component of the IAM at United, have been subject to extended shifts and forced overtime since July. This has caused havoc with personal schedules, since many CSRs work part-time and hold second jobs.
“They are beginning to play hardball,” one mechanic said of the carrier.
“It’s a real war of nerves,” a pilot explained.
After a recent national campaign of full page ads in major newspapers, United broadcast a major television commercial featuring CEO James Goodwin “personally apologizing” for UAL customers’ adventures in air travel, and promising “radical adjustments” to correct the situation.


All these developments have sparked growing discussion and debate among union members in Los Angeles. At least half of the IAM’s 3,000 members at LAX are going through their first contract skirmish at the airline. A majority of pilots and IAM members throughout UAL have experienced only concession bargaining and takeaway contracts. But the carrier’s previous successes in imposing givebacks created an apparent cockiness that left it, and its Wall Street allies, deaf, dumb and blind to pent-up rank-and-file anger.
“We sorely regret underestimating the severity of the operational/labor problems [at United] this quarter,” stated Brian Harris, of New York City’s Salmon Smith Barney, Inc. in an August 17 client bulletin. That is, underestimating how much UAL arrogance, disrespect and greed employees could stomach.
The price of United stock has dropped 36 percent since January. And some analysts predict the cost of tumult on the ground may reach $250 million by the end of September.
More important than dollars and cents, however, is the fact that for the first time in years, thousands of unionists have begun to get a glimpse of something many didn’t know they had, or had forgotten how to use—the collective power of the membership to stand up for its rights.
With the first stirrings of resistance and solidarity, the more labor at UAL steps up to face the employer in action the greater is its chance of becoming what the bosses fear most: united.

Jon Hillson is a UAL ramp serviceman at LAX and a member of IAM Local 1932.

Letter to the Editor
Published in the (Torrance) Daily Breeze

Daily Breeze readers now know about widespread dissatisfaction of pilots and mechanics, among other employees, with United Airlines management (“United suspends mechanics,” August 16). As a UAL ramp service man, I and many of my coworkers share this sentiment.

The airline should immediately rehire the suspended mechanics—this is nothing but old fashioned union-busting carried out by employers who stayed afloat because of more than $4 billion in wage and benefit concessions more than six years ago by UAL labor. This produced, as United mailings to us repeatedly boast, “record profits.”

United began so-called contract negotiations with the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA) 20 months ago, and with the International Association of Machinists last December. But before that, the real discussions had already started, secretly—with the CEO’s of US Airways to acquire that company.

Today, 53,000 of us are working under expired, concession-laden contracts. But United bosses say they’ll pony up $60 a share for the USAirways purchase. This is a killer deal—more than 51 over market value—for USAirways owners, whose stock hovers at $37 a share. Should the Justice Department approve this arrangement, the new entity will enter the world with a $26.8 billion debt (including leases), greater than the combined net income of both carriers.

Profit and competition propel the UAL acquisition, fueling its years-long campaign to squeeze the last nickel from its employees and customers to finance “corporate growth.” Who will carry the debt burden of the new “mega-airline”? Workers, who, as in every acquisition/merger, will find our jobs combined, downsized, and eliminated—and the flying public, which will inevitably face increased ticket prices and travel conditions worsened by layoffs. Just look at recently announced 10,000 layoffs as a result of the 1998 Bank of America/NationsBank merger.

The “new” UAL will try to pit unionists from each company against one another to weaken our unity and bargaining power, thus enabling top executive 1999 salary and compensation packages at United and USAirways of up to $20 million each to continue flowing.

Newspapers across the country have noted that UAL hasn’t been honest with passengers about delays and cancellations. That’s not a shock for those of us who work for UAL every day. Why should pilots work overtime to subsidize United’s arrogance and greed—and its refusal to hire sufficient pilots, despite ample prior recommendations from ALPA?

United’s pricey ad campaigns and public relations spin doctors can’t shield the airline from full blame for a situation they alone created. That’s the real reason the skies they think they own aren’t so friendly for passengers, pilots, mechanics, and other UAL workers.

- Jon Hillson