United-Continental merger shouldn't push back already delayed contract talks, says union rep

The merger of United and Continental is potentially blockbuster news, admits Ken Kyle, local counsel president for the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA -- but only potentially.

Kyle points out that mergers of this size don't happen overnight and don't always hold together. Moreover, he stresses that today's announcement "does not effect our contract talks" -- which led United flight attendants to picket DIA less than a month ago.

"We remain focused on obtaining a new contract," Kyle goes on, "and even though they're moving forward with the idea of a merger, it is far from a reality yet -- and we're not interested in putting off talks, nor does the process call for our contract to be postponed, delayed or set aside. Because deals have fallen through in the past."

For instance, Kyle points to a potential merger between United and US Airways, which collapsed in 2001. And in his view, "the worst-case example of a merger, which we always use to show the way things shouldn't happen, is America West and US Air. They announced a merger five years ago, and it is still not combined."

Indeed, as this Wall Street Journal piece points out, "US Airways is still trying to integrate its pilots with those from America West, which it acquired in 2005. It essentially still operates as two separate carriers and has not realized the improved revenue and lower costs that come with integration."

No wonder Kyle is unwilling to put the brakes on talks to deal with what he describes as "long overdue pay, benefit and work-rule changes. We're working for 1994 wages -- and after United's bankruptcy seven years ago, the promise was 'shared sacrifice for shared reward.' But so far, the only people who've been rewarded are management."

If the United-Continental marriage comes to fruition, Kyle believes it's "hard, if not impossible, to tell" how the combination of the companies would impact the local market. However, "those of us based in Denver believe this is a very underutilized location. United's main line has gone from over 400 departures a day down to approximately 130 departures a day," with the majority of the difference having been "replaced with United Express and co-share departures. And as many people may not be aware, United Express employees are not employees of United Airlines. They work under a marketing agreement. So that means a net loss of United Airlines jobs in Denver."

With that in mind, Kyle would love to see "more United main line flights available for the flying public and international flights. We would love to do more international flying out of Denver. But there are still regulatory and employee issues that have to be hammered out."

Kyle concedes that employee organizations like his "are, to a large degree, bystanders" in the business drama that's unfolding. Still, "this merger will not have employee group support unless our concerns and very valid issues are addressed. Bottom line, we want to work for a well-managed, successful company that returns our working conditions and pay to middle-class standards. So we can be willing participants in this, or we can continue to raise objections until our issues are addressed."

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