Alaska Air ramp crews reject offer

Officials: 82 percent of union workers vote to authorize strike

Posted: Wednesday, May 11, 2005

A labor standoff at Alaska Airlines could cost the jobs of the company's Seattle baggage handlers, who then could replace less senior unionized workers in Alaska.

If the airline hires an outside vendor to handle bags at its Seattle hub, it would be a chaotic summer for passengers, union officials said.

"The new people coming in cannot do as good a job as the ones who have been doing it," said Bobby De Pace, president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers District 143. "There's a learning curve."

But a company spokeswoman, Caroline Boren, said Alaska Airlines has many openings for baggage handlers in Alaska. Airline officials don't expect a layoff of Seattle workers to significantly affect workers here.

If the airline used a contractor to handle bags at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, it would be Menzies Aviation Group, an experienced company that provides excellent service for Alaska Airlines in Portland, Ore., and Los Angeles, Boren said.

The baggage handlers rejected the airline's final contract offer Thursday, with 85 percent of union voters saying no, according to the union.

Eighty-two percent of voters also authorized a strike, union officials said.

Airline officials have been watching closely for work slowdowns, but haven't seen any, said Sam Sperry, Alaska Airlines' director of corporate communications. If flights have been delayed, it's been for the usual causes, such as mechanical repairs or holding a flight for connecting passengers, he said Tuesday.

De Pace said there's no organized work action. But "people get upset with this, so they're not going to extend themselves as they usually do. If people say, 'I'm just going to work the way I'm required to work,' you have problems," he said.

The union represents 952 Alaska Airlines baggage handlers - about 500 in Seattle and 450 in Alaska, including 57 in Juneau, and a few elsewhere.

Alaska Airlines has said it may lay off the Seattle workers and hire an outside vendor to handle baggage there, at a potential savings of $13 million a year.

The company hasn't talked about replacing baggage handlers in Alaska because it would be harder to recruit workers here, De Pace said.

A decision on outsourcing may be made this month, Dennis Hamel, Alaska Airlines vice president of employee services, told workers in an e-mail Friday.

Nonetheless, the airline and the union expect to resume negotiations this summer under a federal mediator, Boren said.

Federal law doesn't allow the union to strike until at least two months after a mediator has declared impasse.

"At this point, regardless of any (strike) authorization vote, there is a process that would have to happen ahead of any action of that nature," Boren said.

Under the rejected 612-year contract, the airline would not hire an outside vendor for baggage handlers for four years in Seattle, Juneau, Fairbanks, Ketchikan and Sitka.

The contract also offered a voluntary severance package to the most highly paid workers.

Wages would rise by 2 percent two years from now and another 2 percent four years from now.

But the contract would have cut top wages and benefits by a quarter, to $15.47 an hour; eliminated differential pay in Alaska and for late shifts; eliminated double and triple overtime; and significantly raised workers' health-insurance contributions.

Alaska Airlines' efforts to reduce labor costs come at a time of high jet-fuel prices. In the first quarter, Alaska Air Group - which runs Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air - reported a net loss of $80.5 million.

Alaska Airlines pilots' pay was cut by about one-fourth recently, following an arbitrator's decision. The pay decrease, and other terms of the arbitrator's decision, saved Alaska Airlines $80 million to $90 million, the company said.

• Eric Fry can be reached at eric.fry@juneauempire.com.



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