United Airlines Flight Attendants Face a Raid by Startup Union

This story has been changed to reflect that AFA President Sara Nelson was referring to attorney Lee Seham and his firm, not to Seham and supporters of the UFAA, when she spoke of "a group of known union busters who thrive on workers experiencing difficult times out of their control during bankruptcies or corporate mergers."

Even as it is apparently nearing a contract deal after five years of fruitless contract talks with United (UAL) , the Association of Flight Attendants is facing a raid by a startup union that wants to represent the carrier's 24,000 flight attendants.

United is the centerpiece of the AFA, which has 60,000 members at 17 airlines. President Sara Nelson is a United flight attendant.

AFA has often seemed to punch above its weight in Washington. On Wednesday, for instance, hundreds of flight attendants visited the Capitol to lobby for a law requiring 10 hours rest between flights.

But the 2010 merger between United and Continental has been stressful for the union, which has had trouble unifying the two groups, which generally have different priorities and still work under separate contracts.

Before the merger, Continental flight attendants were represented by the International Association of Machinists. Many of them work as many hours as possible and get paid well for them, while more United flight attendants seem comfortable with work rules that didn't require high levels of monthly flying.

In the merger, AFA was the larger group and won the representation election.

Now, "we are seeking to replace the AFA with an independent, transparent, more democratic union," said Todd Magnus, a Los Angeles-based flight attendant with 30 years seniority who is interim president of the United Flight Attendants Association. "We believe the time has come for the United flight attendants to govern themselves," he said in an e-mail.

Magnus said UFAA has support from both predecessor airlines. "We have former AFA officers and committee members involved in this movement as well as former IAM supporters," he said. "I would not characterize UFAA as having larger-than-average support from one group or another.

"Response has been overwhelming," he said, judging from "the avalanche of cards we have received." He declined to quantify their number. If the group submits cards with 50% plus one members of the bargaining unit, the National Mediation Board could call for an election.

AFA members pay dues of $50 monthly -- or about $12 million annually. Magnus said UFAA dues would be $45 a month. Any time an outside group raids an existing union, the dues money represents an important prize.

Nelson called Lee Seham, the UFAA attorney, and his firm, "a group of known union busters who thrive on workers experiencing difficult times out of their control during bankruptcies or corporate mergers.

"Seham and characters like him make promises they know they can't keep to make money," Nelson said. "They cut away at the one structure that workers can use to make change: their union. The beauty of our union is that it's pressed forward for 70 years through strong, outspoken flight attendants seeking change.

"I always say, debate and different ideas makes us stronger, better," she said. "I invite anyone with different ideas to speak up and be a part of making change with us."

 

Seham has been a controversial figure in the airline industry. His father, Marty Seham, represented the Allied Pilots Association in 1963, when it split from the Air Line Pilots Association. However, in a 1995 letter, APA President Rich Lavoy argued against retaining the firm, noting that it often represented management in disputes between employees and employers.

Magnus said UFAA founders sought out Seham due to his knowledge of labor law, in order to help the union file for an election. "The firm is not involved with our grassroots operation," he said.

The next seven paragraphs are for airline geeks only. They concern a strike that occurred 12 years ago at an airline that no longer exists.

In an email, Seham challenged my assumption. To call the 2004 walkout the most disastrous strike in airline industry" is "a careless and ill-founded description," he said.

Seham said the AMFA contract was "the best contract in the industry for mechanics in 2001, including a 30% increase in wages and a doubling of the pension {and} the decoupling of mechanic and baggage handler wages thereby allowing greater increases for the former commensurate with their skill and responsibility."

He said Northwest "exploited the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the SARS epidemic to invoke the force majeure exception and reduce maintenance staffing from 9,500 to approximately 4,500." In 2004, he said, Northwest sought more reductions. "Senior mechanics stood by the junior mechanics and decided to strike rather than accept staff reductions," he said. "It was a moral choice.

"Other unions, including the IAM and ALPA, chose to cross the mechanics' picket line," he said.

In a 2006 interview, former IAM executive Robert Roach listed three critical AMFA mistakes. AMFA isolated itself from other unions on the property, saying it didn't need them. In 2005, those unions didn't honor picket lines. AMFA allowed work to be outsourced, paving the way for more outsourcing.

And after members voted to authorize a strike, AMFA leaders decided to strike without a second vote on the final proposal. A strike vote is a routine procedure at the IAM. "They should have seen the handwriting on the wall and negotiated a contract," Roach said.

To me, it's a cautionary tale about replacing a long established union with a new, untested one. Whether it applies in this case, who is to say? 

Shares of United closed Wednesday at $58.77, up 72 cents. The stock has risen 3% year to date. Nine days ago, two hedge funds launched a bid to add six directors to United's board.

TheStreet's Jim Cramer has said the hedge funds' effort is inappropriate, partially because CEO Oscar Munoz, who joined the company in September, has been moving to fix problems including the lack of a flight attendant contract.

 

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.

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