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What it’s like to win a 19-year union organizing campaign in the South

A couple weeks ago, a group of 14,500 U.S. Airways and American Airlines customer service representatives — people who take reservations over the phone and work check-in counters and boarding gates — voted to unionize with the Teamsters and the Communications Workers of America. The election was remarkable for a couple reasons: First, because of the margin of victory, with 86 percent voting yes on 77 percent turnout. And second, because it took place in the anti-union South, with most of the agents in Florida, Texas, North Carolina and Arizona. Kenneth Grunwald, a reservations agent in Cary, N.C., explains what it was like to organize and win. This interview has been slightly condensed. 

I actually started with American Airlines 23 years ago, and shortly after I started there was a union organizing drive. It’s been about 19 years we’ve been waiting now, so it’s an incredible victory. It’s not totally surprising, but the margin of the vote was definitely very very very surprising to me. It’s about as unanimous as an election can be. It’s something that’s really taken a lot of work. The last election was just about 50-50, we lost by 150 votes.

I should number one say thank you to American Airlines. They’ve been neutral, and it’s been just an incredible hands-off behavior. It’s helped all of us become educated, even the ones who initially were very much against having a union.

Initially, I was undercover, trying to coax my brothers and sisters here at American, gently, rather than being aggressive. I was on the fence about having the union, I’ll be honest with you, about 15 years ago. I thought unions in general are very important for workers, but maybe not for reservations, maybe not for ticket counter personnel. I can say the more I educated myself, the more I talked to people, the more I realized I was wrong.

The reason I changed my mind about 15 years ago is I started talking to people, and most importantly, about 10 years ago, I started talking to my US Airways colleagues, and I got to see it’s not necessarily a slam at management. We have life insurance, we have car insurance, and now we have some job insurance with representation with the union. It’s something that all the major work groups within American Airlines were represented, and we were the odd ones out. We needed a little bit more security, and a little bit more across the board fairness.

Naturally in a company, you have office politics, and sometimes you have office favorites, and all I can say is there are those that didn’t want that policy to change. But it’s going to be a little bit less subjective, and a little bit more in writing in the contract, less local policy and more across the board. People will not think that “if only I was treated a little more fairly, like x, y, and z.” There’s not going to be that envy of how another person was treated in a similar situation.

And I hope I hope I hope they give us this, and it’s going to be in writing now, and we’re going to go ahead and bargain for what should be  a very strong contract, because it was a very strong vote. I have general expectations that we’ll have a benefits increase, we’ll have wages increase.

I’m just looking at the US Airways contract — even their health insurance is better than American Airlines for people who take reservations. I don’t believe it’s going to affect American Airlines’ bottom line. Having a more cohesive workgroup is going to be beneficial for them. It’s not going to eliminate morale problems, but i believe it’s going to significantly decrease.

[Before the previous vote], there were some meetings that were organized by management to “get out the word” on what unions would be like. And all I can say is that some people took that information and twisted that into a negative fashion, and their prejudices against unions were not confronted. So there was very little give and take. There was mostly give. There was fear on the work floor of being for a union, especially because so much of the activity was trying to tell us why a union may not be the best choice for us. Also, there was not the enthusiasm. There were quite a few people who didn’t vote, and quite a few people who waited until the last minute. So we made sure that we tried to get as much of the vote out as early as possible, so there wouldn’t be a ballot at the bottom of a stack of paper, lost forever, at the end of the 30 day voting period.

The merger with US airways allowed us to become closer, and speak to each other.  I give a lot of credit to the people who showed us how it’s done, and that it’s okay to vote for a union, there’s not going to be any fear of retribution from supervisors.

More than 50 percent of the people in reservations now are home-based, and make a lower salary, have dramatically less benefits than the office-based workers. So they were a great help, because obviously, they had a little more incentive than the office-based workers to organize amongst themselves. We’re hoping that the gap will narrow dramatically, at a minimum. All of this was an outgrowth of our bankruptcy, of having to survive. When the Tucson office closed, rather than be laid off, those people had an opportunity to move to Dallas or to Raleigh, which were the two remaining reservations offices, or work from home. They jumped at the chance rather than lose a job. And I’ll say they make a minimum of 25 percent less.

They’re on my mind, and this is as much for them as it is for us. We’re all in it together now.

There are airlines that have [outsourced reservations jobs] overseas and come back to the U.S., because different reservation centers didn’t work out. Probably, from what I’ve heard, it was a test by different airlines. American hasn’t really outsourced overseas, we just didn’t want that to happen in the future.

I was brought up with unions in my blood. I remember my mom, she’s 95 years old, she was a union supporter for over 80 years. I remember Cesar Chavez was leading a strike in the late 1960s, and we weren’t eating iceberg lettuce. And it made us feel good, because we were doing something that my mom was strongly for. I think of it kind of like as a transportation bond. You pay your taxes for transportation. I’m not for high taxes, and there might be some potholes left, but it’s going to be a lot easier to drive with less damage to your car.

I don’t think this is going to be an isolated situation. I think this will be the start of something where different workgroups will see that we’re reaping the benefits of all the work that we did. It’s not going to be something where, “Oh, we’ve got union dues, we’re in the same place that we were before.” It’s going to be different.

That’s basically what I found out, when i was speaking to my US Airways colleagues. They were 50-50 as well with their previous election, and I was wondering, “What changed all your minds?” And it’s amazing, over 95 percent are supporters now. Where did the 45 percent no votes go? They became supporters.