Thursday, October 27, 2016

Southwest Airlines flight attendants get vocal as contract vote set to end

Shortly after voting ends at 12 noon Central Time on Monday, Southwest Airlines flight attendants will know whether a second attempt in two years at getting a ratified contract has been successful or not.

Voting on the new contract began on Oct. 16. According to one source close to developments, "things have gotten really ugly" behind the scenes as the faction of Southwest flight attendants who approve of what is in the new contract wage war with a vocal — and not insignificant — faction who object to a new tentative agreement they insist does not do enough to address quality of life issues important to senior union members who have been in the trenches for many years.

The anti-contract faction among the 14,500 members of Transport Workers Union Local 556 appears to be making the most noise. There have been reports of harassment, hacked Facebook accounts and impersonation of others, all in an attempt to sway votes among those who have waited until the end of the two-week voting window to cast a ballot.

On the other side, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly may have knowingly played into the hand of the pro-contract crowd yesterday in his comments connected to the airline's softer third-quarter earnings report released Wednesday.

Kelly predicted a softening in both revenue and profits in the fourth quarter, which is not something Kelly has been talking about much in recent years as revenues and profits soared amid falling oil prices. Flight attendants who haven't voted on the contract will have that information to mull as well.

Another factor that will no doubt weigh on decisions to vote for or against ratification is the very real possibility a mediator would have to be brought in to oversee a third attempt at a new contract, should it come to that.

Mediation, sources insist, can be a slow process — meaning it could take much longer for management and union to agree on what a new contract should contain the third time around. Plus impossible, of course, to know whether a third contract would be better or worse than what is on the table now.

Local 556 president Audrey Stone and her negotiating team have kept an exceedingly low profile as the voting on the contract has played out. Sources say she and her team have remained on the road trying to educate the rank and file about the tentative contract.

But Stone also has been a lightening rod of discontent for some union members who believe she has not worked hard enough to get a new deal that reflects the significant contributions flight attendants believe they have made to the airline. The outcome of the contract vote may be an important factor in determining Stone's future role within the union.

Best guess as to how the vote will go? One source close to union management who characterized the anti-contract faction as "delusional and desperate" made this unscientific prediction — "60 percent in favor of ratification, maybe 65."

Southwest Airlines has its largest hub at Chicago's Midway Airport.

(Lewis Lazare - Chicago Business Journal)

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