The baggage handlers at Chicago's Midway Airport are used to doing some heavy lifting. But their efforts to preserve their living wage jobs against outsourcing by corporate giant Southwest Airlines may take all the muscle they've got.
With their contract negotiations set to begin in July, Transport Workers Union Local 555 reports little progress has been made in countering the airlines demand to outsource up to 20 percent of the ramp agents jobs at Midway, Southwest's largest hub.
"We aren't just talking about money," explains Daniel Chriss, station rep for the 700 local members who work at Midway. This huge unseen workforce doesn't just make sure everyone's suitcase makes it on the right airplane. They also handle critical safety functions, including the winter de-icing of planes. According to Chriss: "We basically handle everything under the wing of the plane." Outsourcing these jobs will inevitably lead to them being filled by temps or even day laborers without the skills, experience or motivation to do what these career employees do.
It's not just muscle, but skill, coordination and hustle that let three to four ramp agents turn a plane around in 25 minutes, explains Juan Cordova, 35, who has worked as a ramp agent for 14 years. Southwest has brought in bigger planes carrying more passengers and their luggage, but is always trying to cut the work force handling them. "We're up to 243 flights a day here at Midway," and mandatory OT is going up. Cordova is the union's alternate district rep. A resident of the Chicago suburb of Blue Island, he is a family man and the father of two. Chriss, 31, a Chicago resident and 12-year employee, is the father of five, ages four to nine, including a pair of twins.
Being career employees means a lot to both men who say their work has been an important part in building the company's success. "We don't want to outsource our jobs," Cordova says. "We're gonna keep on fighting till we get a decent contract."
On June 19, Chriss, Cordova and more than a dozen of their co-workers were off the ramps for a change and inside the cool air conditioning of Midway's terminals. They planned to spend the day reaching out with printed information and conversation to the passengers they serve, explaining their struggle.
Ironically, it turned out it was the flying public reaching out to them: Southwest's computer system had taken a nosedive and an interminable line snaked through the terminal. Anxious passengers turned to the friendly ramp agents for directions and reassurance. Even though the ramp agents were off the clock, they responded cheerfully, directed an elderly passenger to the wheelchair ramp, earnestly outlining the airline's baggage policy, or giving reassurance that flights would still take off. And their luggage would definitely find its way back in to their hands. Clearly these career employees do have a high commitment to their customers and jobs.
The ramp agents said they found the public generally union friendly and supportive.
"These guys are out here on their own time. They must really care about their jobs," said one New York-bound business passenger. "I wonder where the CEO is?"
As a matter of fact, CEO Gary Kelly could be an issue to the public. His 2011 compensation of $3.5 million is more than 50 times that of the guys and gals doing the heavy lifting. He rides a corporate jet, not in 6-across seating like his passengers. Fares are up 10 percent. And some might question why a company whose revenue exceeded $4.1 billion last year with first quarter profits of nearly $100 million is focusing its efforts on eliminating and downgrading jobs and packing more passengers in planes.
"I guess you could say we're not feelin' the love," said the traveler.
Photo: Nick Hopkins/PW