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Union Raids at AMR, US Airways Reflect Democracy, Expert Says

CHARLOTTE ( TheStreet) -- The labor movement generally opposes union raids on already unionized workplaces, but a contrarian university professor said that opposition is unwarranted because the raids reflect the democratic process and give workers an opportunity to be heard.

The Teamsters' efforts to raid mechanics at American (AAMRQ.PK) and US Airways (LCC), represented respectively by the International Association of Machinists and the Transport Workers Union, "can make either union more accountable to its membership," said Jonathan Cutler, associate professor of sociology at Wesleyan University.

"To me, it's good for the IAM and the TWU to be kept on their toes," Cutler said. "An election opens up an area of competition." Given that the incumbent unions made concessions during bankruptcies, an election "allows a free flow of information about the kind of bargaining concessions made," he said.

IAM spokesman Joe Tiberi said elections represent an opportunity for workers to express their views, and noted that the IAM frequently conducts leadership elections in which workers are free to seek office and leaders can be displaced. But he said that is no reason for US Airways mechanics to sacrifice membership in the highly regarded IAM pension plan.

"We've had many examples in the IAM where members vote out incumbents," Tiberi said. "That is the democratic process at work. But to risk pensions and job security by leaving for a union with a poor track record is a risk that does not need to be taken."

A TWU spokesman said Teamsters raids mean that unions spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight one another, which "exhausts the resources of the unions and sends a message to people who aren't unionized that unions waste dues money fighting each other."

It is ironic that in North Carolina, the least unionized state "with lots of mechanics who are unorganized and working for low pay and poor benefits, the Teamsters held a press conference where they said they have nothing better to do than to raid organized people," the spokesman said.

Jim Witt, a Los Angeles-based American mechanic for 25 years and a TWU shop steward, said he was among the workers who contacted the Teamsters last summer because he was dissatisfied with the deal the TWU reached in bankruptcy. The deal offers higher wages, he said, but much of the benefit is lost to higher health care costs. "I went on the Teamster web site and I contacted the Teamsters," he said. "Guys from Tulsa had also contacted the Teamsters, and it snowballed from there."

Witt said TWU has represented American mechanics for decades. "We have not had a union election for 67 years," he said. "This is a historic moment in time: We are in a process to vote for whom we want. The Teamsters are not raiding us. They are here to help us." Witt said he took a 17% pay cut in 2003 as American sought to avoid bankruptcy. "This was a great job that had good pay and good benefits," he said. "Now, it is just a job." Senior mechanics make about $32 an hour.

Whichever union wins the representation elections, if they occur, will be under pressure from workers to make demands on the airline, which could be problematic, said Barry Hirsch, professor of economics at Georgia State University.

Hirsch said airline industry wages and benefits rose during the 1990s. As the 21st century began, the industry faced problems including a slowing economy, expansion by lower cost airlines, the Sept. 11 terrorist attack and the profusion of Internet shopping for low fares. The combination of reduced revenue and high costs led most legacy carriers to file for bankruptcy protection, where wages and benefits were reduced.

Afterwards, Hirsch said, "A lot of rank-and-file workers thought wage scales would bounce back quickly, but they have not. (Instead) the economy has crashed and wages have not been rising or have barely risen." It is possible that rhetoric associated with union raids has unreasonably raised worker expectations, Hirsch said, but workers may also have come to realize that they cannot regain everything they gave up in bankruptcy.

"You have seen all the major legacy carriers go into bankruptcy, and that's a big deal," he said. "Workers know that. They care about wages and benefits, but also they really value their jobs -- these are good jobs."

Wesleyan's Cutler said competition between unions can be difficult for airlines. "It causes labor leaders to ramp up promises," he said. "In that way, it makes for a more vital labor movement, but it also causes more headaches for employers."

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Ted Reed

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