Flight attendants at Southwest Airlines sound new note of solidarity


They can sing. They can run contract campaigns. And they may just inject some new vitality into labor-management relations in the Twin Cities’ troubled airline industry.

Flight attendants from Southwest Airlines, members of Transport Workers Union Local 556, visited Minneapolis-St. Paul Thursday in advance of the airline’s entry to this Upper Midwest market, with flights starting Sunday between MSP and Chicago.

The upbeat outlook of Local 556 President Thom McDaniel and fellow TWU members Donna Keith and Crystal Rains was in sharp contrast to the tense situation facing Northwest Airlines workers, who have faced years of difficult bargaining, givebacks and strikes, followed by the carrier’s declaration of bankruptcy and merger to become part of Delta Airlines.

McDaniel, Keith and Rains touted the fact that Southwest is one of the few carriers still offering free drinks, peanuts and pillows – and no charge for the first bag of checked luggage. Many Southwest flight attendants also are known to serenade fliers when they provide the safety instructions.

“It’s very rare you don’t have someone ask you if this is going to be a singing flight,” said Rains, a member of the union’s Executive Board who is based out of Houston.

Added McDaniel: “We’re pretty known for having fun in what we do.”

But just because they engage in levity, don’t take members of TWU Local 556 lightly. Southwest management found out the hard way when they tried to have managers fill flight attendant positions.

The union produced a video for YouTube, titled “Not D-LOVEly,” that used music to slam the new company practice. Stung by the criticism and conscious of its folksy image, Southwest management backed off. View the video

It’s one of many examples of Local 556’s creatively militant approach, said former Northwest Airlines flight attendant Karen Schultz, who several years ago considered merging the then-independent NWA attendants’ union with TWU.

“One of the things that was most attractive is they do contract campaigns,” she said.

Highly unionized
Though headquartered in Texas, a state not known for a friendly labor relations environment, 84 percent of Southwest’s employees are represented by unions. The Transport Workers Union is the largest, with more than half of the workforce. Local 556 represents 9,200 flight attendants while Local 555 provides a voice on the job for some 6,000 ramp, operations, provisioning and freight agents.

Other major unions at Southwest include AMFA, the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, representing mechanics, and SWAPA, the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association. It’s an independent pilots’ union not affiliated with the better-known Airline Pilots Association that represents pilots at Delta and other major carriers.

To start, no Southwest employees will be based in the Twin Cities, as the airline launches eight daily flights between Chicago and the Humphrey Terminal at MSP. But members of Local 556 still plan to get involved in the Minnesota labor movement, McDaniel said.

“We try to have some representation at every major labor event that goes on in any city where we have service,” he said.

In communities where Local 556 members are based, they are active in their local central labor councils, political campaigns and civil and human rights organizations, he said.

And even though flight attendants – by virtue of working in a transportation industry – are governed by the federal Railway Labor Act, Local 556 is also active in efforts to reform the National Labor Relations Act through legislation called the Employee Free Choice Act.

Members learned the value of being active in 2002, when they struggled through a two-year campaign to win a better contract. When they started, their wages were 30 percent below their counterparts at other airlines, McDaniel said.

Through the creative use of contract campaigns and by building coalitions, Local 556 now has one of the best contracts in the industry and a much-improved relationship with management, the Local 556 representatives said.

“One reason for the success of our contract campaign was we had support from the community,” McDaniel explained. “If we’re going to be a movement, we can’t wait (to be involved) until we need someone to show up for an event.”

Sending a message
In addition to this week’s visit, Local 556 is announcing its presence in Minnesota through advertisements on Minnesota Public Radio and WCCO radio. The ads inform listeners that Southwest is the most unionized airline in the industry, as well as the most profitable.

“There’s so much negativity surrounding labor relations in airlines in this area,” noted McDaniel. “We’d like to remind people it doesn’t have to be this way.”

Other airlines have tried and failed to crack into the Twin Cities market – where Northwest, now Delta, dominates. Will Southwest’s presence grow beyond the one route to Chicago?

“We really don’t know,” said Keith, a flight attendant based out of Chicago who said she looks forward to regular trips to the Twin Cities. “Hopefully it will be vast.”

For more information
See the full text of the radio ad and learn more about Local 556 at www.twu556.org