CHICAGO ( TheStreet) -- Once again, the International Association of Machinists is in the middle of an airline merger. But this time, it could find itself in conflict with other unions, rather than with airline management.

In the 2008 merger between Delta ( DAL - Get Report) and Northwest, the biggest airline union represented 12,500 workers at Northwest, which merged with a largely non-union carrier. Nearly two years later, union elections at Delta are still pending, as the two sides continue to skirmish.
United and Continental

Now Continental ( CAL - Get Report) and United ( UAUA), both heavily unionized, plan to merge, meaning the conflicts are likely to be intra-union, because in three cases similar work groups are represented by different unions.

To summarize, the IAM represents about 9,500 flight attendants (about 8,400 are active) at Continental, while the Association of Flight Attendants represents 16,000 flight attendants at United (about 13,000 are active). The IAM represents about 7,900 fleet service workers at United, while the Teamsters represent about 7,600 fleet service workers at Continental. The IAM represents 8,100 customer service agents at United, while Continental agents do not have union representation.

At both airlines, pilots are members of the Air Line Pilots Association, and the two pilot groups say they will work together to secure an improved contract for their members. Similarly, mechanics at both airlines are members of the Teamsters.

"Our first priority is the protection of the people we represent," said Robert Roach, IAM general vice president. He said the union has not yet taken a position on the merger nor has it had discussions with other unions to determine potential resolutions to representation issues.

"We intend to conduct ourselves civilly -- we hope everyone else will also do so -- to provide information and to reach out to other labor groups as we move forward," Roach said. "We should all talk to each other."

While the relationship between the IAM and the AFA is generally positive, it is possible that one of the two groups would petition for a representation election at the combined carrier. The United group is larger, with 16,000 members (13,000 are active) while Continental has 9,500 flight attendants (8,400 are active).

"We have a good working relationship with the IAM and we will continue to work with them, but if it comes down to a question of who is going to represent flight attendants, we believe we will be the representative," said Sara Nelson, spokeswoman for the United AFA chapter and newly elected international vice president of the union. "We're the largest flight attendants union in the world and we've negotiated the top contracts."

By contrast, the relationship between the IAM and the Teamsters is not warm. One of many flash points involves the United mechanics. Longtime members of the IAM, they shifted to a renegade union, the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, after a 2003 election. But AMFA suffered a severe blow to its image after staging a disastrous 2005 strike at Northwest -- most of its members lost their jobs. In a 2008 election, the Teamsters ousted AMFA at United.

The IAM had hesitated to call an election, fearing that because so many workers were on furlough and could fail to vote, calling for an election ran the risk of drawing participation below 50%, which would have left workers with no union representation. The two unions have accused each other of raiding their members in various cases.

While the Continental fleet service workers are Teamsters following a February vote, they have not yet signed a contract. "We believe we have a lot of interest in the IAM at Continental," said Roach. "We've received a lot of calls, and we're exploring that very carefully."

As far as customer service agents, Roach said an election that would extend union membership to Continental customer service agents is possible, but it is also possible that the carrier will choose to recognize the union without an election.

Conceivably, the unions could reach some sort of deal that would enable them to avoid costly elections at the carrier. But IAM spokesman Joe Tiberi said the union has no interest in deserting any of its members. "Just think about the leverage we would have if ramp, public contact and flight attendants at the largest airline in the world were all in the same union negotiating at the same time," he said. "The IAM is the only union that can make that happen."

A spokesman for the Teamsters declined to comment. However, in a prepared statement released Monday, David Bourne, director of the union's airline division, declared: "Our team of legal and financial experts has extensive experience with mergers and acquisitions and will watch this process carefully so that the interests of our mechanics and fleet service members are protected."

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

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