United’s Attendants Risk More for Less : Jobs Are on the Line in Strike That Doesn’t Directly Affect Them
Deciding to honor the picket lines set up by striking United Airlines pilots was the hardest choice she had made in 15 years as a flight attendant, Judi Lomkin said.
“I cried for two weeks” as the strike deadline approached, Lomkin said Monday while waiting in an El Segundo hotel banquet room for a meeting of striking United attendants.
“I knew it could cost me my job, and I wasn’t ready to give up my job,” she said. “But I saw the rest of my flying partners ready to commit themselves, and I thought that if saving my job means not being able to fly with these people, the job wasn’t worth saving.”
Among United’s 10,000 flight attendants, most of whom are supporting the 19-day-old strike, life is colored with such anxieties.
Compared to the pilots, the attendants have less to gain and more to lose.
Like the pilots, the attendants are risking their jobs. United has hired hundreds of replacement attendants in its campaign to “rebuild” the airline without strikers.
But unlike the pilots, the attendants are not directly affected by the principal economic issue that led to the strike.
Nor does the attendants’ union, the Assn. of Flight Attendants, have a strike fund to help members survive a prolonged dispute. By contrast, the pilots union plans to make $1,000-a-month payments to its striking members.
Nor did the attendants’ union--again unlike the pilots--ask its members to vote on whether to support the strike.
As an apparent result of these factors, the strike has received less support from attendants than pilots.
About 95% of United’s 5,200 pilots are striking. Depending on which side one wishes to believe, the percentage of attendants on strike is either 84% (the attendant union’s estimate) or 70% (the airline’s estimate). Both sides accuse the other of manufacturing statistics for propaganda purposes.
A week and a half ago, United and its pilots reached agreement on what was believed to be the strike’s primary sticking point: United’s plan to drastically reduce the wages of newly hired pilots. But arguments over “back-to-work” issues--including sanctions the airline has taken against striking attendants--have blocked a settlement. No subsequent talks have been held, and both sides appear willing to wait out the other.
Insistent that management is more interested in breaking their union than settling the strike, United’s pilots tend to sound angry, defiant and righteous, like Jerry Brown, a uniformed United captain who carried a picket sign Monday at the airline’s employee parking lot entrance near Los Angeles International Airport.
“We are so mad,” Brown said, “that if it means losing my job, my home--starting all over again--to win this thing, I’ll do it.”
Back in the striking attendants’ meeting in El Segundo, Hilary Germann, who has worked for United for 13 years, sounded a different tone.
“It was a scary decision,” she said quietly. “For a lot of the girls it was a real personal type of decision, finance-wise. . . . It’s frightening.”
When they struck, pilots complained that under the company’s proposed two-tier plan, a newly hired pilot might require as long as 20 years to catch up with the wages paid to pilots hired before the new contract.
The airline last year negotiated a two-tier wage program with the flight attendants, but in that agreement the wages for new hires caught up with the existing scale after only six years.
Pat Friend, chairwoman of the attendant association’s Master Executive Committee, said her union supported the pilots because attendants feared that if United won its battle with the pilots, the airline would try next year to negotiate a flight attendant contract that kept new employees’ pay low for far longer than six years.
For Nancy Levy, a Los Angeles-based United attendant who refused to join the strike, such an argument was “too speculative.
“I think it was a scare tactic,” complained Levy, who with a co-worker has established a “support committee” for United attendants in Los Angeles who are not honoring the strike.
Levy said she “didn’t see why pilots should be excluded” from a two-tier wage plan, and added that she resented the fact that her union did not take a strike vote. Union leader Friend said all that was procedurally required was a vote of the national committee she chairs.
Attendant Lomkin acknowledged that in deciding to strike, she put her trust in her union’s analysis.
Loyalty a Stumbling Block
“Without all the information, we weren’t in a position to make that judgment,” she said. “It wasn’t easy for us. Our union decided; that’s what we pay them for. We had to go along with them (the pilots) if 96% of them were willing to risk 20- and 30-year careers.”
The pilots, in turn, have vowed that they will not return to work unless the airline agrees not to penalize any striking attendant. Ironically, this loyalty is one of the stumbling blocks to a back-to-work agreement.
United has stated that employees who continued working during the strike will receive seniority over strikers. Pilots demand that a back-to-work agreement return seniority status to pre-strike conditions. United counters that pilots have no jurisdiction to bargain on behalf of a fellow union and says the airline’s treatment of flight attendants is not negotiable.
The airline, which has been unable to fly more than 14% of its pre-strike flight schedule, says it has plenty of flight attendants to handle the current load and is currently training 500 more.
Leaders of the attendants’ union say United has tried to intimidate strikers by mailing them letters ordering them to turn in their employee badges and manuals and informing them that 300 attendants who initially went on strike have returned to work.
“We think we can go as long as we need to,” Friend said.