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US AIRWAYS Perception angers baggage handlers



Published: Wed, January 5, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



The IAM contends that the number of people calling in sick was comparable to past holidays.

PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE

The head of US Airways' baggage handlers is not confident that a cost-cutting agreement can be struck with the airline by Thursday, when a bankruptcy judge could decide the issue for them by canceling their contract and freeing the airline to impose cuts of its choosing.

Randy Canale, president of the International Association of Machinists District 141, offered his dour assessment of negotiations in Philadelphia where he and other union officers also tried to deflect blame for US Airways' Christmas weekend travel fiasco.

The company originally attributed the problems -- which delayed hundreds of flights, misplaced untold numbers of bags and inconvenienced thousands of passengers -- to a high number of sick calls from baggage handlers and flight attendants.

But the baggage handlers, as did flight attendants last week, contended that the number of people calling in sick was comparable to past holidays and that the company should have been better prepared for the crunch of bad weather and high traffic.

Perception

"There is a perception that we are the bad guys," said Robert Boland, president of the IAM Local Lodge 1776 in Philadelphia. Such a perception, he said, "is untrue."

The finger-pointing added to the stress both baggage handlers and US Airways are feeling as they work to rehabilitate the airline's image and to reach a deal that could save the airline more than $100 million a year.

The danger for the IAM is that U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Stephen Mitchell could void the union's contract on Thursday absent negotiated concessions, allowing the company to impose even stiffer pay and benefit cuts.

Canale, who speaks for more than 4,000 baggage handlers at US Airways, said he did not "see much hope of reaching a consensual agreement" before Thursday, but acknowledged that there was still time to get something done.

Boland, a member of Canale's negotiating committee, was slightly more upbeat, saying he thought the two sides "were pretty close" to an agreement last week. "I would hope we would reach a consensual agreement," he added.

The baggage handlers and the mechanics, both represented by the IAM, are the only two work groups not to have new concessionary agreements with the airline, which is trying to survive its second bankruptcy by cutting $1 billion in labor costs.

Meeting

The mechanics unit, which is being asked to give up cuts worth $253 million, is meeting with the company.

Overshadowing those discussions are the company's original request seeking the ability to outsource thousands of the mechanics jobs. The union is trying to save those jobs, but said it would send the company's last and best offer to rank-and-file members for a vote if it couldn't reach a consensual deal.

Until this week, the IAM had been largely silent about the Christmas travel meltdown that began in the delay-prone and space-constrained Philadelphia International Airport.

Airline Chief Executive Officer Bruce Lakefield originally blamed the trouble on "abnormally high sick calls" from ramp workers in Philadelphia and flight attendants sick calls that he said were "almost three times higher than normal."

The flight attendants union last week countered that the numbers who called in sick were in line with past years, and IAM officials are making the same point. They contend the holiday problems were the result of airport understaffing, equipment problems and high traffic rather than employee no-shows.




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