The largest airline union is expanding its reach, organizing the ground service workers who have largely been left out of the airline industry's remarkable post-recession recovery.

The International Association of Machinists said that in the past 10 months it has organized more than 2,000 ground service workers at two leading providers: McGee Air Services, a newly formed subsidiary of Alaska (ALK)  , and at United Ground Services, a United (UAL) subsidiary.

In general, workers in the ground services industry provide baggage and cargo handling and gate service at airports where individual airlines have too few flights to hire full-time staff. Airlines employ their own ground service workers at their hubs.

"What happened in the airline industry is that back in the 1970s and 1980s, all this work was performed by airline employees," said Sito Pantoja, general vice president of the IAM Transportation Department. "But when the bankruptcies accelerated, the companies said 'we will weaken your scope clause {so} we can farm out the work.'

"Then these companies were able to hire workers at $7 an hour with no benefits."

More recently, Pantoja said, "The companies found out that with thousands of employees with very low pay, they had operations that were not as efficient. They had workers who don't care and they suffered as a result."

Union contracts are better for everyone, Pantoja said. The benefits even include a bridge to a job with the airline itself, Pantoja added.

IAM signed a contract with McGee Air Services in summer 2016. Since 2005, Alaska had outsourced its baggage handling to Menzies Aviation, a non-union firm.

Tim Klima, the IAM's airline coordinator, said the union and Alaska initially agreed to a collective bargaining agreement that covered about two dozen airport workers in Phoenix. Then workers got a chance to vote simultaneously on the CBA as well as union authorization.

"Usually companies resist the union and we have to go through the process of fighting their anti-union behavior," Klima said. "In {both of} these cases, we got the companies to agree they would treat the union without animus."

"There are dozens of ground service companies throughout the U.S.," he said. "Now McGee is one of the best contracts we have." Under the Railway Labor Act, IAM can negotiate national contracts; it does not have to negotiate on an airport-by-airport basis.

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