After many years and multiple attempts, the 3,100 customer service representatives (CSRs) at America West Airlines (AWA) won the right to union representation by the Teamsters. Fifty-four percent, or 1,679, of the CSRs voted “yes,” the National Mediation Board in Washington, D.C., announced Aug. 17.

Two years ago the America West CSRs attempted to organize with the Teamsters. The election was lost after intensive anti-union activity by AWA management. On June 17 this year, the CSRs once again filed for an election under the Railway Act. To win union recognition, they had to garner 50 percent plus one vote of the entire bargaining unit. If AWA management could intimidate enough employees to not vote, those ballots not cast would be counted as “no” votes.

The CSRs are among the most visible public faces of America West. This predominantly female workforce (79 percent) was the largest remaining non-union group of workers at AWA and some of the most underpaid in the industry, with a starting wage of $7.65 an hour. After 9/11, AWA received $110 million in cash and $380 million in loan guarantees from the Air Transportation Stabilization Board as part of the federal government’s bailout during the subsequent collapse of the airline industry.

AWA is one of only four airlines to report a profit in each of the last four quarters. CEO Douglas Parker received a bonus of $1 million in 2003, which amounts to 182 percent of his base salary. Yet, prior to this latest organizing effort, the CSRs had been promised only a 3 percent pay increase annually through 2008.

The Tucson Coalition of Jobs with Justice responded to a call for help by the National Organizing Director of the AFL-CIO, Stewart Acuff, to send a delegation to the largest AWA call center in the United States in Tempe, Ariz. This call center employs 800 CSRs. Tucson Jobs with Justice sent six delegates on the two-hour drive to Tempe July 22. The delegation included Arizona State Sen. Jorge Garcia (D-Tucson).

The goal of the delegation was to encourage the workers and to pressure the company to cease anti-union activities. Only two days earlier, management had begun one-on-one meetings with employees to threaten them with loss of pay and benefits if they voted for the union. Tucson JwJ joined with the East Valley Interfaith Council from the Phoenix area and Teamster organizers to deliver a letter to AWA management demanding that they respect the right of the CSRs to organize.

The delegation was visible to many of the workers as the group entered the building and requested to meet with management. Though management dodged the meeting, the delegation’s goal was accomplished: the workers saw the show of support from the community. As the delegation left the building, they got a standing ovation from employees in the break area.

The struggling CSRs received help from various Jobs with Justice coalitions across the nation during the organizing campaign. Other community groups also joined the effort to lift the workers’ spirits and show them that they were not alone. Community organizations, clergy, students, labor allies and elected officials all demonstrated tremendous solidarity as the America West Airlines CSRs fought to gain a voice at work. As they prepare to enter contract negotiations, they will continue to need on-going support from their community allies to ensure a quick and fair agreement.

The author can be reached at jenkins427@hotmail.com.

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