Cultures actually clash in US Airways-America West merger
Share with others:
Any hope of a trouble-free US Airways-America West Airlines merger ended with a bloody, bare-fisted tussle between rival unions the morning of Feb. 8.
The details differ in the telling, but both sides agree the chair-throwing, kicking and punching inside a Philadelphia hotel meeting room resulted from the competition over who will represent the 8,000 baggage handlers at the new US Airways, one of several labor disputes still unresolved six months after the merger officially began.
The fight -- which involved as many as 30 men and landed two in a hospital emergency room -- is an extreme example of the larger culture clash between two very different coastal carriers, one sunnier and more Western in outlook (America West) and the other hardened by East Coast turmoil and long periods of financial distress (US Airways).
Some employees out West viewed what happened in Philadelphia as "typical East Coast mentality," said Pat Rezler, who represents America West baggage handlers as president of Transport Workers Union Local 580 in Tempe, Ariz.
Mr. Rezler believes US Airways workers are fearful of more pain following two bankruptcies. He saw it firsthand last December, when he appeared before a crowd of US Airways workers in Philadelphia.
"Who the hell are you to come to our city?" said one rival union member, according to a statement Mr. Rezler provided to the National Mediation Board. At the same meeting, two colleagues claim they were warned that Mr. Rezler was "about to get his butt kicked."
All this squabbling is no surprise to industry observers.
"I have never seen an airline merger go smoothly," said longtime aviation consultant Darryl Jenkins, who advises airports and airlines across the country.
Even management knew from the beginning that melding the two cultures would be the most difficult task of the new US Airways and that labor peace would be critical to how well the new airline does.
Many say the fallout from its late 1980s merger with PSA Airlines and Piedmont Airlines hampered US Airways for decades and contributed to the high cost structure that forced two bankruptcies in the years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Ten months after announcing the plan to combine and six months after officially merging their books, US Airways and America West remain largely separate operations day to day, with separate work groups, separate uniforms, separate planes (10-15 of percent of America West planes have been repainted with the US Airways colors), separate reservation systems (until the end of the year) and even separate Web sites (until May).
But the airline, which has seen its stock rise significantly since the merger and predicts a profit in 2006, argues that the full integration of the two carriers, which will not be complete until early 2007, is going "a little bit better than anyone had expected," according to spokesman Phil Gee.
One early victory was an alliance between two unions representing more than 7,000 gate workers and reservation agents.
Still, it is clear several cultural differences still exist:
Pilots at the old US Airways and the old America West still have not worked out critical issues of seniority, pay and work rules, and there are already strains between the two groups. America West pilots chairman JR Baker worries that US Airways union officials want to get back too much of what they gave up in two previous bankruptcies at the expense of the larger pilot group. "I'd like to send Oprah and Dr. Phil to help them with their grieving, but at the end of the day they need to start making decisions about their future," he said.
Flight attendants still do not have a single contract governing all employees, and US Airways flight attendants president Mike Flores is warning that his group wants to recover what it lost during two bankruptcies: "It was the employees of US Airways who stepped up to the plate and gave up as much as they possibly could to get the company through bankruptcy," he said. "Now that is done and the company is well capitalized and positioned to succeed, I believe we should share in that."
Mechanics still do not know which union -- the International Association of Mechanics or the Teamsters Union -- will represent them and work toward a new contract with the merged carrier. The issue of representation is now before the National Mediation Board, and the rhetoric from both sides is heating up. The Teamsters claimed they have enough support to force a vote of all members, and the IAM disagrees ardently. Andy Marshall, secretary-treasurer of the Teamsters Local 104 in Phoenix, has noticed the divisions between the two sets of workers, noting that the US Airways side is full of "a lot of unhappy people."
"There is a definite difference in culture between the two operations, and I don't see that changing."
Baggage handlers still do not know which union -- the IAM or the Transport Workers Union -- will represent them, a dispute that contributed to the violence in Philadelphia between the two groups. Mr. Rezler, of the TWU Local 580 in Tempe, believes the fight can be explained if one thinks about the history of cutbacks at US Airways and the pain experienced by employees. "They just emerged from a second bankruptcy with their contract definitely beat up, and they were basically threatened" by the TWU organizing efforts. "I just think they were threatened by what they saw as an attempt to maybe hurt them some more."
Employees at both airlines are able to take empty seats for free, but they do so differently. For America West, it's first come, first served. For US Airways employees, free travel is awarded based on seniority -- a policy they do not want to give up. "If they come down on the first come, first serve policy, there certainly will be major repercussions among employees of the former US Airways," said Mr. Flores, the US Airways flight attendants union president.
No decision yet on which beverage will be served aboard all flights: US Airways serves Coke and America West serves Pepsi. Also no decision yet on a uniform for all 35,000 employees, although the company is working on that, too.
But no one is fighting over soft drinks and uniforms -- at least not yet -- which is why the brawl in Philadelphia stands as a particularly harrowing example of the differences that threaten to disrupt labor peace. Again, the two sides differ on the details of what happened, but what all agree is that organizers from the Transport Workers Union were in Philadelphia on Feb. 8 as part of a campaign to gain support from US Airways workers and swing them to the TWU side.
The IAM, in a court filing, claims the TWU organizers tried to force IAM-represented US Airways employees from the Marriott Hotel meeting room and then "physically assaulted" them. The IAM claims its members fought back in self-defense.
The TWU, in a statement to the National Mediation Board obtained by the Post-Gazette, tells a different story. It claims several IAM officials warned them to leave the room and one pointed to a group of men waiting outside, wearing US Airways uniforms, and said: "If they come in here, I can't be responsible for what they are about to do."
Soon thereafter, 25 men rushed into the room, throwing chairs and tables, breaking glass, punching and kicking the five TWU organizers. One TWU organizer said he deflected four or five chairs before being hit with several others. At least five men pulled him to the ground, held him down and kicked him repeatedly, according to the statement.
Another man said he had a hot cup of coffee thrown in his face.
Yet another man from the TWU described being cornered by five men who "rammed" him against the wall several times with a large metal dining cart. The man, according to a statement filed with the National Mediation Board, "became convinced the attackers were trying to kill him." On "sheer adrenaline," he pushed the cart and his attackers back and escaped, only to be pinned against a filing cabinet and hit with repeated blows to his head.
He said he yelled: "Enough! Enough!"
When an alarm sounded, the men from the IAM left, according to the testimony. Two men were rushed to emergency room of a nearby hospital with concussions, eye injuries, lacerations, "possibly broken ribs" and "bumps and bruises all over their bodies."
Two days later, TWU Executive Vice President Jim Little referred to what happened as a "bloody and violent retaliation" for organizing efforts and described it as the most violent airline labor episode in 50 years -- "a throwback back to an era that should have been closed long ago."
US Airways fired 22 people as a result of the incident, which it called "isolated" and not indicative of attitudes held by the company's 35,000 employees.
A TWU spokesman could not be reached for comment, but Bill Gray, president of the TWU Local 547 in Pittsburgh, said one of the men involved in the fight has set up "an armed camp at his house" and believes "they are coming after him. It's unimaginable the thuggery that took place."
For the US Airways merger to succeed, he said, the squabbling has to stop. "Clearly, we have to get our act together and keep it together."
First Published April 2, 2006 12:00 am