Has American Airlines Abandoned Its Promise to Airport Workers?

(Sipa USA via AP)

Doug Parker, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, American Airlines Group, speaks during the 2017 Aviation Summit hosted by the U.S. Chamber Of Commerce in Washington, D.C., on March 2, 2017.

One year ago, American Airlines publicly promised to encourage its service contractors not to oppose their workers’ campaign to unionize, in order to avoid an impending publicity disaster if Philadelphia airport workers went on strike during the Democratic National Convention. But now that those workers have voted overwhelmingly to unionize with the Service Employees International Union—and the contractors have refused to recognize their employees’ vote—the union claims the airline giant is turning a blind eye to its contractors’ resistance, and reneging on its promise.

“We have seen that promise broken,” Hector Figueroa, president of the SEIU Local 32BJ, told The American Prospect.

The expectation that President Trump’s appointees to the National Labor Relations Board will fashion a more pro-management interpretation of federal labor law, Figueroa says, has emboldened corporations like American and its contractors to oppose workers’ right to organize.

“Based on the outcome we had last summer, [American Airlines] committed to a fair process for workers to win the union and address the issues of their concern,” Figueroa says. “Instead, with the election of Trump, American has fundamentally abandoned the promise and allowed its contractors to play a series of illegal games.”

One week before last summer’s Democratic National Convention was set to kick off in Philadelphia, the airport’s baggage handlers, wheelchair attendants, security workers, airplane cleaners, and other contracted workers pledged to go on strike. The workers were largely employed by a web of subcontractors hired to provide services outsourced by the major airlines, chiefly American, which operates a hub out of the Philadelphia International Airport.

The workers were fed up with low wages, sporadic hours, meager benefits, and illegal retaliation for their efforts to unionize with SEIU Local 32BJ. The strike threatened to sow chaos for the tens of thousands of travelers—DNC delegates, politicians, and activists alike—set to fly in to the airport.

Leaders of the Democratic Party, which counts SEIU as one of its closest allies and biggest supporters, were eager to resolve the issue and avoid beginning the convention with a major labor dispute. Pennsylvania’s Democratic Governor Tom Wolf, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, and other party officials called on American Airlines to sit down with the union and reach an agreement. Soon thereafter, the airline giant promised to work with SEIU to ensure that subcontracted workers would have a fair and open path to unionization. The strike was averted and travel to the convention went unimpeded.

Democratic officials and American Airlines patted themselves on the back, and the union resumed its multi-year organizing campaign at the airport. In April, workers employed by airline contractors PrimeFlight Aviation Services and Prospect Airport Services voted overwhelmingly—406-58—to unionize with 32BJ. Yet both companies refuse to recognize the union and are contesting the election results. American Airlines has opted not to get involved.

American declined to comment for this story, instead referring the Prospect to comments CEO Doug Parker made in response to a Philadelphia airport worker’s question at the company’s annual shareholder meeting on June 14.

Timothy Glenn, a Prospect wheelchair attendant, asked, “Now that Trump is president, American Airlines seems to have backed away from its promise and has not objected to its contractors’ actions. Will you commit to making American Airlines contractors, PrimeFlight and Prospect, respect our rights and bargain a fair contract?”

In response, Parker explained that the company’s contractors believe that the process should go through the National Mediation Board as stipulated by the Railway Labor Act, not through the NLRB.

He continued:

… I can tell you what I know, which is that we have indeed ensured SEIU and the City of Philadelphia and airport that union representation is not a factor in selecting vendors. Over half our vendors across the country are union, 83 percent of AAL employees [are] union, so that is certainly not the issue. We did work with the city of Philadelphia to get you, at least, the ability to choose to organize, if you chose to. And again, your employer has a differing view on what’s required to do that. And I would like to tell you we could influence that, but that’s not for us to go decide the governing law for union representation for our vendors. But again, we have worked hard with the city and the group you are trying to get to represent you to have the fair right to do that. And we will continue to do that.

PrimeFlight declined to make anyone available to comment. Prospect did not respond to requests for comment.

A spokeswoman for Philadelphia Mayor Kenney issued a statement to the Prospect saying, “Even after these employees went through NRLB sanctioned elections and chose to unionize, they are still out there fighting for their right to have union representation. While we recognize the legal rights of the subcontractors, we are extremely disappointed that they are refusing to engage in negotiations.” She did not say whether the mayor has been in contact with American since the union vote.

Airline contractors have long tried to argue that they fall under the same labor law jurisdiction, the Railway Labor Act, as the airline companies themselves. Employees at airlines must unionize through the National Mediation Board and follow a process that has historically made it harder to successfully unionize. (Under the terms of the RLA, a union must secure a majority of the votes of all the workers in the jurisdiction, not just all those who voted.) However, in recent years the National Labor Relations Board and the National Mediation Board have issued several decisions, including one involving PrimeFlight, rejecting that argument and declaring that employees at such companies are covered by the National Labor Relations Act and the NRLB union election process.

Yet airline contractors are still resisting unionization efforts, perhaps hoping that the Trump administration might spark a change as to which labor laws they are bound by. The White House confirmed that Trump is seeking to appoint William Emanuel, a management-side lawyer and Marvin Kaplan, a Republican lawyer, to the NLRB. If they are confirmed, Republicans’ will gain a 3-2 majority on the board. Labor experts anticipate that the board will eventually reverse many of the key decisions made by President Obama’s NLRB, which had begun to shift the labor law scales in favor of workers and unions.

“It's not unusual for parties to delay in the hope that they will get a favorable ruling from a more favorable board,” William Gould, a former chairman of the NLRB in the 1990s, told the Prospect. “It's been going on at least since the '60s.”

In recent years, SEIU has ramped up a nationwide campaign to lift wages and working standards at airports and unionize employees of airline contractors. Since the 1980s, airlines have cut costs by contracting services—like cleaning airplane cabins and assisting customers to their gate—to a select few companies that are notorious for keeping wages and benefits at the bare minimum. While passenger airlines in the United States made more than $13 billion in profits last year, more than one-third of airport workers make less than $15 an hour, according to a report by the Economic Roundtable. The report also finds that nearly 200,000 airport workers across the country rely on public assistance to make ends meet, meaning the public is essentially subsidizing the cost of airlines’ low labor costs.

Workers at airports in New York and Seattle have successfully unionized, and many more are in the process of organizing. Progressive municipal and state officials have pushed through legislation lifting the minimum wage and instituting other pro-worker policies at their respective airports.

On the organizing front, SEIU’s strategy has been to pressure the airlines to make it clear to contractors that they should not resist employees’ attempts to unionize—precisely what American agreed to amid the threat of the strike during the DNC. Meanwhile, the company continues to play up the fact that 83 percent of its own employees and more than half its vendors are unionized. In April, the company announced that its unionized pilots and flight attendants would receive a non-negotiated $830 million pay raise over two years. American CEO Parker also pledged at the shareholder meeting that employees of the company’s third-party vendors, like PrimeFlight and Prospect, would share in its rising profits.

But there appears to be a clear limit on how far the airline will go to use its power to influence its contractors’ labor practices—despite the assurances made to the contrary.

“If American wants to hide behind the contracting system, if they want to hide behind the change in the political system and opportunism, then shame on them,” Figueroa says. 


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