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American Airlines, Communications Workers of America Locked In Unionization Battle

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Rosemary Capasso, 59, has worked as a passenger service agent at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport for the last 30 years.

She splits her time between the ticket counter, where she checks-in baggage and prints out boarding passes, and the airport gates, where she helps passengers who have seating issues and flight delays. In her thirty-sixth year as an American Airlines employee, she makes $21.54 an hour.

In December, Capasso signed a union petition with the Communications Workers of America (CWA), hoping a union would give her and the other roughly 10,000 passenger service agents at the airline giant more leverage in contract negotiations with the company.

“Many of us want a union because we want a voice in our future,” Capasso said. “As non-union [workers], we have no say in our future. American Airlines does to us whatever it sees fit.”

But the union election, which usually takes place a month after enough employees sign a petition, has been wrought with controversy and repeatedly delayed. On Thursday, a federal judge in Fort Worth will decide whether to issue an injunction to block the election, marking the latest chapter in a bitter seven-month battle between CWA and American Airlines.

Last December, more than 35 percent of service employees at the airport signed a petition requesting to be represented by the CWA. According to the old rules of the National Mediation Board (NMB), the federal agency that governs labor relations in the railroad and airline industries, that should have triggered an automatic election.

But in February, the Senate passed a controversial provision in a bill funding the Federal Aviation Administration that moved the threshold up to 50 percent.

American Airlines points to the new rules outlined in the FAA bill as grounds for the company’s refusal to hold the election. Arguing that the new legislation cannot be applied retroactively, the NMB had demanded American Airlines proceed with the election, which had been scheduled to take place between June 21 and August 2.

American Airlines then sued the NMB and, in a victory for the company last week, U.S. District Judge Terry Means granted a temporary restraining order to prevent the election from taking place.

The CWA, with backing from Democratic leaders in Congress, have accused the airline of stalling. On May 15, Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) sent a letter to American Airlines CEO Tom Horton, asking that his company proceed with the election. Leading Democrats in the House, including Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), followed shortly thereafter.

“American Airlines has tried every conceivable, ridiculous argument just to keep these individuals from having a voice in the workplace and it’s an outrage,” CWA spokesman Chuck Porcari told The Huffington Post. “They seem to think they have the right to usurp the will of Congress…Congress and the NMB have made it clear that retroactivity is just not an argument here.”

A spokeswoman for American Airlines said the legal issues are not so cut and dry.

“This is an unprecedented issue in the history of the Railway Labor Act [the law that governs labor relations in the railroad and airline industries] that merits a court review before any election takes place,” Missy Cousino wrote in an email. “The CWA has acknowledged that a majority of these employees did not support its effort to unionize this workgroup, so we think it’s clear the union’s election application did not meet the threshold of 50 percent that the law says is required for a union representation election to be held."

The case has acquired even greater significance in the context of the ongoing bankruptcy court proceedings of the airline giant’s parent company. The bankruptcy case could mean significant concessions and job cuts for some of the company’s roughly 75,000 employees, as American Airlines is attempting to throw away its existing collective bargaining agreements with the three unions that represent the company’s pilots, mechanics and flight attendants. On Friday, a federal bankruptcy judge in New York will decide if the company can void those existing agreements.

Union supporters like Capasso say that American Airlines is dragging out the election process in order to more easily extract concessions from the non-union passenger service agents. Those concessions could be more difficult to obtain in the ongoing bankruptcy case if she and her fellow passenger service agents were represented by a union, they argue.

“Whenever the company wants to make changes to any work group, they have to negotiate with the three union work groups, and negotiating is a give and take,” Capasso said. “With us, as non-union employees, it’s all a take. There is no give. The company, at will, can take whatever it chooses.”

American Airlines, however, denied the charge that it is deliberately stalling the election in order to more easily obtain concessions.

“The restructuring process is a separate matter from the [NMB case],” Cousino wrote in an additional email. “We will continue to stand up for our employees while ensuring their right to a voice in the important decision about whether or not to seek union representation, if the correct law was applied. At this time, the issue is appropriately with the U.S. District Court and American will cooperate fully with the court in that process.”

CWA spokesperson Candice Johnson told HuffPost that the union will appeal the decision if the judge issues an injunction blocking the union election.

 
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