The announcement of victory spread to airports across the nation at lightning speed after the nearly 3,200 customer service representatives at America West won their union election on Aug. 17. It was the largest union election victory for workers under the Railway Labor Act in over a decade, and the largest private sector union win in the country in over five years.

For me, as a union organizer, it was like winning the Super Bowl, with the stakes being much higher.

The International Brother-hood of Teamsters (IBT) got involved in helping America West workers organize so that they could bargain collectively for higher wages, dignity and respect at the workplace. The customer service representatives (CSRs) were the last group of workers at America West unrepresented by a union. CSRs do everything from issuing tickets, checking baggage, assigning seats, and helping with security to handling high-volume telephone traffic at the company’s call centers.

America West had continued to be profitable while other airlines faltered, yet the CSRs had some of the lowest pay scales in the entire industry. Many workers qualify for public assistance. And, as one of the supervisors so aptly stated, “We never said you could feed a family with this job!”

Workers are typically disciplined for calling in sick. One worker was disciplined for calling in sick even though it had been her only sick day in over four years. Because of the severe understaffing, workers are made to work mandatory overtime, even if they are single parents with children to pick up from day care. The workers may not know they are required to work overtime until only a few minutes before they are leaving work.

Workers rarely get breaks or lunches. One worker reported not being allowed to go to the bathroom for over five hours and other workers agreed that this is not uncommon. The scheduling of shifts is in chaos, and because of the unbearable working conditions, the turnover rate is over 40 percent.

Obstacles to organizing

As one of the lead organizers for the campaign, I was able to experience firsthand the difficulty workers face when trying to organize their union in the airline industry. Under the jurisdiction of the Railway Labor Act, airline workers cannot organize one shop at a time. Instead, the union must at once organize every worker in the same job classification nationwide. Plus, the union must win a majority of the entire bargaining unit, not just a majority of those voting.

The election takes place by means of a “phone vote.” To vote “yes,” workers must have received their “participant code” in the mail from the National Mediation Board (NMB), which only happens if the company supplied their correct addresses to the board. But nearly 200 workers did not receive their ballots on time from the NMB.

In a phone vote, the employee does not receive a paper confirmation that they voted. And to vote “no,” the employee simply never makes the call. If the employee never receives their participant code, they can request one by mail and cross their fingers that their code comes by mail before the time is up and they lose their right to vote. The voting period lasted three weeks.

Bottom-up strategy

In order for these workers to win their union representation, we knew we had to put together a bottom-up strategy of strong committees and self-organization. The IBT, in partnership with the AFL-CIO, met with the workers and collectively designed a structure that could withstand the company’s attacks. The plan called for each of the 42 stations at airports and call centers nationwide to have an internal organizing committee.

Each committee member took a permanent assignment of 10 other workers to communicate with on a regular basis while communicating with the union organizer on a regular basis as well. For instance, if a worker was disciplined for calling in sick, or had a question about the campaign or any other concern, that worker would go to their co-worker who was in the Organizing Committee and express their concerns. The committee member could in turn discuss it with the union organizer and the issue could be immediately addressed. This way, workers were building their union from the ground up and were operating as a union before it was even formalized by an election victory.

The Organizing Commit-tee and union organizers used this structure to prepare workers for the company’s anti-union campaign. This consisted of anti-union literature, false promises, and mandatory anti-union meetings in both group settings and one-on-one. The union even conducted “mock” anti-union meetings with the Organizing Committee re-enacting what the company would say and do. The Organizing Commit-tee then went to each of their workers and prepared them for what would happen at the anti-union meetings.

This strategy kept workers from being caught off-guard. When the company’s campaign began, the workers were ready.

Involving the community

The union simultaneously conducted a community campaign. The union built a broad- based coalition of community and labor leaders and activists in areas where workers lived. The coalition chose strategic times to meet with America West management in airports and call centers across the country. The message was loud and clear, notifying the company that community leaders were monitoring the company’s labor practices. Any potential interference in the workers’ right to organize would not be taken lightly, and community support action would be swift.

When the company fired one of the workers in the Phoenix airport for being a vocal union supporter, the Organizing Committee formed a delegation with the community coalition. With press standing by, the delegation met with the management of America West and declared that they would not tolerate this kind of treatment of one of their own, or any attempts to intimidate the workers from making a free choice in the election.

As a result of the pressure we put on the company, America West gave the terminated employee his job back. This sent a message to CSRs in other parts of the country that sticking together works. It sent a message to the company that the CSRs were taking this campaign seriously. They were going to stick together and organize their union and hold the company accountable for their labor violations.

A victory for dignity, respect

This campaign was a success on many levels. The workers at America West stood together and against all odds organized their union. They now have a say in their future and the ability to go to the bargaining table and negotiate a living wage, improved benefits and better working conditions. CSRs will no longer settle for anything less than being treated with dignity and respect.

For many, organizing their union was an empowering experience that motivated them to get more deeply involved in the labor movement. Our role as labor leaders is one of being able to aid in democratizing society and gaining a more equitable distribution of wealth, thereby assisting workers in gaining a strong voice and increased control over their life at work, in their communities and country.

There has never been a more critical time in history to organize workers. A declaration of war has been issued by corporations and an anti-union administration against working families, with millions of good jobs disappearing, and workers’ rights being attacked. For the Teamsters, organizing strategic targets gives us greater “union density” in the industries we already represent. This ensures our ability to win better contracts for our existing members. But we are also building a mighty army of millions of empowered workers who will stand united to assure people are put before profit in this country.

Working side by side with a primarily female workforce, many of whom are single parents and working more than one job, and witnessing the tremendous sacrifices they made to organize their union, was an honor and an inspiration.

The CSRs of America West, the IBT and AFL-CIO demonstrated in this campaign that the workers can win, even against vicious opposition, when they organize smarter and build a base of strength. When unions choose an organizing target based on an analysis of the targeted industry and what kinds of leverage it will take to win, this sophisticated approach can defeat powerful employers. The Teamsters helped create the vision in which workers change conditions in their industry, not just focus on fighting their individual employer. When unions use this sophisticated approach to organizing, unions start to create the conditions that allow unions to win.

The author was a lead Teamster organizer in the America West campaign.
She can be reached at