Employees of Frontier who don't want the airline's name to change aren't the only folks in the industry to have rallied lately. Yesterday at Denver International Airports, over a hundred United flight attendants showed up with pickets in hand to protest a contract stalemate that's lingered for a year.
The flight attendants have gripes aplenty, but arguably the largest one is the rate of pay. According to Ken Kyle, local counsel president for the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, the current deal "is equal to what we were earning in 1994. We're looking at wage levels from sixteen years in the past."
Is a strike in the offing?
Not immediately, Kyle notes, for reasons having to do with the rules governing airline employees.
"Under the Railway Labor Act, which governs airlines employees, our contracts never expire," he points out. "They only become amendable; they remain in effect, and we can't take a job action until the National Mediation Board releases us. Following a thirty-day cooling-off period, there can be the potential for self-help" -- like, for example, a work stoppage.
In the case of the flight attendants, their current contract was negotiated in 2003, during a period when United was in bankruptcy. "It included massive pay cuts in the 30-35 percent range," Kyle says, "plus work-goal changes across the board -- and at that time, we had our pensions taken away from us."
In the interim, United emerged from bankruptcy, and while no one would describe today's environment as a fat time for airlines, the carrier seems to be in fairly solid shape. But that hasn't added up to quick agreement on a contract renewal.
According to Kyle, "our amendable date was January 7, 2010, but the bankruptcy-era contracts contained a provision to opening up contract talks early. So April 6 a year ago was when we actually initiated our contract talks, nine months before the amendable date. And the 6th is the unfortunate one-year anniversary of still not reaching a contract agreement with the company."
The first DIA rally decrying this situation took place, appropriately enough, on January 7, a day when Kyle says temperature hit fifteen degrees below zero, limiting the number of protesters to about a hundred. The turnout yesterday was better, with Kyle estimating it at around 130 people. They echoed hundreds of their colleagues who mounted similar demonstrations at a slew of other airports around the globe, from Washington, D.C. to Frankfurt, Germany.
Kyle felt passengers were receptive to the flight attendants' message.
"We passed out informational leaflets explaining our situation, and we were sure to be very courteous," he stresses. "We want United Airlines to succeed, so we promote and thank people for flying on our airline even as we let them know what's going on with us. And most people aren't aware of our situation or the inequity that's arisen since bankruptcy. After exiting bankruptcy, corporate executives of the company received a 29 percent raise, followed by a 19 percent raise, plus bonuses and stock options, while we've been forced to wait until our contract was up seven years later. That's something many in the flying public can relate to. It's something affecting middle-class America."
At this point, negotiations are ongoing but not exactly zooming ahead, Kyle maintains. "When we failed to reach a tentative agreement by last August, both the company and the union contacted the National Mediation Board -- and as long as there's even minute, miniscule, incremental progress, the arbitrator will continue with talks. But after a year, there's only been an agreement of five out of 35 sections of the contract, and those are basically saying that language in those sections can remain the same."
The flight attendants aren't the only folks facing this kind of situation. "Every labor group on United's property is in contract talks," he says. "It's a perfect storm of labor agreements."
Most passengers would rather not think about storms in conjunction with flying. Page through below to see more photos of yesterday's rally.