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United Labor Issues Cloud Merger

Snapbacks would be costly for United. In 2002, a top-scale fleet service worker earned $23.79 an hour and paid nothing for a family health care plan. Today, the same worker earns $21.01 an hour and pays $212 a month for the plan.

At Continental, about 9,500 IAM-represented flight attendants reached a tentative agreement in September. Then members rejected it. Tom Brickner, IAM airlines coordinator, said the agreement was a good one, with a no-furlough guarantee, profit sharing and wage hikes of 2.5%, 2.5% and 2% over three years. Compensation would have been $11.50 hour higher than what United flight attendants make, he said.

The problem? Brickner said the union "viewed this agreement as a down payment on what the merger could produce [with] a second bite at the apple" after a representation election. Members would have a good contract in place as the process played out, he said. But too few flight attendants were convinced, and only about 60% turned out to vote.

On Friday, the IAM said that, at its request, the National Mediation Board has assigned a mediator to the negotiations, which are set to resume on Dec. 8. After a year of talks, "requesting the help of a federal mediator is the next logical step in the bargaining process," said negotiating committee member Sheila Hammond, in a prepared statement.

United's 13,500 flight attendants are represented by the Association of Flight Attendants. "There's a lot of optimism about how this [merger] will be going forward," said Sara Nelson, spokeswoman for the United AFA chapter. "But at this point, people are still hurting, like they have been for the past decade, while waiting for [contract] improvements."

AFA's position in the representation election will be that it is best qualified to represent flight attendants, its only constituents. "We negotiate contracts based on priorities determined by flight attendants," Nelson said. "No other union offers that direct relationship." For their part, the IAM and the Teamsters, with more diverse memberships, say bigger is better. (IAM members also have the only defined benefit pension plan at United.)

The Teamsters represent mechanics at both United and Continental as well as 8,000 Continental fleet service workers. They will battle the IAM to represent the combined fleet service group. Currently, "we own everything under the wings except United [fleet]," said David Bourne, Teamsters airline division director. "That's a lot of clout."

Bourne said the Teamsters have good relationships with both Continental and United where, after replacing a weak AMFA local, the union brought back outsourced maintenance work. Bourne wants intensive United negotiations during the week of Dec. 6. "I don't like that the pace has slowed since we got the agreement with Continental," he said. "We want to resolve this and move forward."

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