US airline labor tensions grow; Judge rules vs UAL pilots


CHICAGO – From picketing ground workers and flight attendants to disgruntled leaders of a pilot’s union, labor issues are heating up at US airlines.

Commercial carriers breathed a sigh of relief in recent months as a sharp drop in the price of fuel suggests that they can make money next year, rather than face bankruptcy or liquidation.

Now, with many multi-year labor contracts up for negotiation, labor groups – stung by deep cost-cuts in by airlines this decade and deteriorating economic conditions in recent months – seek to share in the industry’s improved outlook.

Union officials at United Airlines, a unit of UAL Corp. (UAUA), have been particularly vocal on behalf of their members in the Air Line Pilots’ Association. During a three-year reorganization in bankruptcy, some of United’s labor groups saw wages and benefits cut nearly in half.

A federal judge Tuesday ruled that the United pilots went too far with some illegal “sickouts” earlier this year. The judge issued a temporary injunction against the pilots to stop such action. United brought the suit against the pilots last summer. In a statement Tuesday, United said that pilots’ actions disrupted business, although they were undertaken by “a very few” of ALPA members.

An ALPA spokesman didn’t immediately respond to the ruling.

Even as the judge ruled against the United pilots, flight attendants at American Airlines, a unit of AMR Corp. (AMR), began picketing Tuesday in three cities to protest a 25% cut in pay and benefits, along with an increased workload. The Ft. Worth airline, the world’s largest carrier by passenger traffic, has implemented deep cost cuts outside of bankruptcy.

A spokesman for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants said the demonstration will commemorate the 15th anniversary of a successful labor strike in 1993, and will “remind management that flight attendants are determined to win a good contract, even if they must take the ultimate step to get it.”

Labor relations at Southwest Airlines Co. (LUV) have been less contentious over the years – helped by a successful fuel-hedging program, the airline made money through lean years for the industry. But last week, ground workers picketed in Dallas and Chicago, and plan to expand their protests.

Said Charles Cerf, president of the Transport Workers Union Local 555: “Our members are struggling with everyday living expenses and wages have not kept pace with the rising cost of living. Some of our members have not had a raise since 2005 after accepting a two-year contract extension that included unprofitable stock options in lieu of raises.”

Even at JetBlue Airways Corp. (JBLU), where employees haven’t had union representation before, pilots last week said they were seeking regulatory approval to form a union. “We have complete faith in our current company leadership, and believe that this will be a cooperative effort,” said pilot spokesman Michael Sorbie. He said the union wants to be prepared to work with future managers who might not be so labor-friendly. To cope with high fuel prices and the weakening economy, JetBlue has cut back on expansion plans, expecting no growth in 2009.

Some labor leaders have expressed hope that the new administration in Washington, including a Democrat in the White House, and many more liberal members of congress may be more sympathetic to organized labor than government leaders have been in recent years.