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Southwest Union Faces Turmoil as Contract Talks Begin

DALLAS (TheStreet) -- As flight attendants at Southwest (LUV) prepare to begin negotiations on a new contract Monday, union leadership is in turmoil.

Local 556 of the Transport Workers Union, which represents about 11,000 flight attendants, had long been viewed as a strong local, twice securing significant contract improvements under the leadership of 11-year president Thom McDaniel.

But McDaniel stepped down last year and long-time board member Stacy Martin was elected to succeed him. Then Martin ran into trouble. Some blame an erratic management style, while Martin said he was the victim of office politics involving loyalties to the candidate he defeated.

Martin was ousted last month as president following a lengthy series of discussions and meetings among union leaders. On Thursday, Baltimore-based flight attendant Audrey Stone was named to replace him.

"I wouldn't have run for president if I had known it would be so easy to be removed," Martin said. "The people we ran against and beat in a landslide election are now back in place." He said he and two allies, who were also removed from union leadership positions, will appeal to the international executive council of the TWU and may also take legal action.

While the president is typically elected by a vote of the membership, Local 556, like most unions, is run by an executive board. In the case of Local 556, the 16-member board includes five executive officers, nine members from each of the nine Southwest flight attendant domiciles and two at-large members. McDaniel, now a TWU international representative, said that in forcing Martin's resignation the board "followed procedures defined by the constitution, moving forward to continue the good work for the members."

Brett Nevarez, the union's second vice president, said: "We are a democratic organization and we vote on virtually everything. A majority vote suspended (Martin) and suspended him for good cause."

A statement of seven charges against Martin contends that he "maliciously published or circulated false reports" in a PowerPoint presentation and in a video he circulated to union members, both of which gave the appearance of representing the union's views, when they had not been approved by the union leadership. In fact, in both, Martin expressed disagreement with union leadership. Also Nevarez said Martin had not fully engaged in preparing for the upcoming contract talks.

Martin said he had been preparing for the upcoming contract talks for the past year, that he recently negotiated a critical side-letter agreement on international flying and that there was nothing improper in the video or PowerPoint presentation. "I wanted members to know what we were doing," he said. "I talked about the struggles we had and addressed rumors that were going around. It was from my heart."

The union president heads the five-member contract negotiating team. The union's industry-leading contract became amendable on May 31. In two previous rounds of negotiations, the TWU secured a wage increase of 30% over five years in 2004, followed by a 23% increase over four years in 2008. Both increases came during times when many other carriers were reducing labor costs while operating under bankruptcy protection. The 2008 contract was subsequently extended for a year. One-time CEO Jim Parker's adversarial approach to flight attendant negotiations was blamed for his 2004 departure.

In the upcoming negotiations, "we're looking to make improvements," McDaniel said. "Our flight attendants have been at the top of the industry for some time, (but) compensation, keeping up with inflation, is always on the table. Also there are always issues of flexibility, which is big for the flight attendants, (while) productivity is big for the company. As Southwest has grown and increased the number of connections, a major concern for us is protecting our time: Flight attendants don't want more unpaid time on the ground."

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

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

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