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Workers' Rights Up in the Air

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Flickr: waitscm
Flickr: waitscm

Ken Merker has worked for American Airlines in Miami for 20 years. It's less common today to see that length of service at any company. Despite two decades of service, Ken's future is up in the air -- literally.

"I used to be proud to work for this company, but now it's hard to go to work. All we have from the company are promises, but this election is our chance to take control of our future," Merker stated.

The nearly 10,000 passenger service agents at American Airlines have been struggling to form a union for a long time. After years of organizing efforts, they signed cards indicating that they wanted union representation, but the company continues to try to block their legal right to vote.

These workers are the front lines of the airline. They are the workers you talk with to get your boarding pass or check your luggage. They are the agents on the phone when you make your reservation, and the customer relations person you talk to when you need to resolve a problem during your travels.

Right now, the workers' union election is scheduled to begin Dec. 4. American Airlines is trying to block the election from going forward. Sounds very un-American.

For workers who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender -- LGBT workers like Ken Merker -- the stakes are even higher. In a majority of states, LGBT workers can be legally discriminated against because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. In states where many American Airlines employees are based, including Florida, Texas, North Carolina and Arizona, state-level protections aren't expected anytime soon.

American Airlines is a company that has historically had a good track record on both LGBT issues and labor. The rest of the American Airlines workforce -- about 90,000 employees -- already have union contracts. American Airlines also has a long track record of supporting LGBT nonprofits and showing public commitment to equality.

However, the company's actions in the last year are counter to all the good will they've earned in our community. They are taking every step they can to block these workers' from simply allowing them to vote "yes" or "no" on joining a union.

"Knowing how the company is trying to obstruct us in our election has a definite effect on the LGBTQ community because of our high profile in the industry," said Steve Langhi. "I've worked in the airlines industry for over 30 years, the last 11 with American Airlines in Dallas since the merger with TWA.

"I think I've been treated fairly at American Airlines because of the progressive social agenda in the airline industry, especially domestic partner benefits, which I have used. The way American Airlines is trying to block our election makes me realize that our rights need to be in a legally-binding contract. Otherwise, they can take it all away."

For any worker it can be a challenging time when their company goes through a bankruptcy proceeding. Much can be up in the air -- the possibility of layoffs, restructuring, a new parent company.

Since the company went in to bankruptcy, the passenger service agents are the one work group without the ability to try to negotiate bankruptcy work rules, wages and benefits. They are facing the devastation of a lifetime of service to the company without the ability to try to salvage some of their careers.

Having a union doesn't mean that unionized workers avoid hard decisions; it just means that they have a voice in making those decisions. For passenger service agents like Ken and Steve, no union means they have no protections and no voice, in spite of dedicating decades of their lives to the company.

American Airlines knows that there are many LGBT workers in their field, as well as a strong LGBT customer base. When workers are struggling to win a voice at work, there is no middle ground. Either you support the boss doing whatever they want, or you support the rights of LGBT workers. As LGBT activists and leaders, it's vital that we speak up in solidarity for passenger gate agents like Ken and Steve.

The demand is simple: Tell American Airlines to let the workers vote on whether or not they want to have a union. Please visit the Pride at Work website to send your email to American Airlines in support of LGBT workers and all the passenger service agents.

American Airlines, stop being un-American. Let the workers vote.