Transport union defends members in airline bankruptcy

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NEW YORK - The Transport Workers "will do everything possible" to vigorously protect 23,400 members who work for American Airlines and its American Eagle subsidiary as the carrier goes through bankruptcy, TWU President James Little said.

But in a measure of what TWU faces, American's letter to the union declared it "would not proceed to finalize tentative agreements" for two groups of TWU-represented workers, the 10,166 fleet service workers and 140 flight dispatchers. Both airlines "would prepare to seek further changes" in other TWU contracts, their letters to the union said. A plan to spin off Eagle within 18 months was put on hold, its CEO added.

Little warned his members of the pitfalls. "This is likely to be a long and ugly process," he wrote on Nov. 29 to TWU members employed by American and Eagle.

American filed for bankruptcy protection on Nov. 29, becoming the last big U.S. airline to do so. The others that went through bankruptcy used it to slash unionized workers' pay and health care through forced contract revisions and dumped retirees' pension plans onto the federal agency that insures traditional pensions.

"Our union had tried to work with managers to make the company more cost competitive and more efficient. In the past month we had reached tentative agreements for both flight dispatchers and fleet service workers," Little said.

"Fleet service is American's largest bargaining unit. Other TWU units at both American and Eagle previously inked agreements. Our aircraft mechanics and maintenance workers, represented by TWU, have saved the company several hundred million dollars over the past decade through boosted productivity and by bringing in work from other airlines," he said. TWU also proposed contract concessions, such as 401(k)s, not traditional pensions, for new hires in the fleet service group.

"While we think this bankruptcy could have and should have been avoided, it does not come as a surprise," Little admitted. "TWU engaged special bankruptcy counsel two years ago as a contingency," and sent its attorney into bankruptcy court in Manhattan to defend the workers' interests in the proceedings.

Little also promised TWU would fight to protect American's passengers. One key difference between American and other big U.S. airlines is that American kept aircraft maintenance work in-house and in the U.S., using TWU members. Other carriers outsourced much of their maintenance to "less-secure poorly regulated maintenance facilities in third-world countries," Little noted. "We will do everything in our power to maintain quality and safety for this airline and its passengers, while protecting the interests of our members," he added.

Photo: Passengers wait in line at an American Airlines ticketing counter at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago Nov. 29. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)

 

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