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Steelworkers woo ticket agents and clerks at USAir


With an additional 7,800 USAir workers now under its belt, organized labor is getting a shot at another big chunk of USAir workers this summer as nearly 10,000 ticket agents and reservations clerks vote on whether to hook up with the United Steelworkers of America.

Ballots were mailed to those workers Tuesday, and results will be counted by the National Mediation Board in Washington on Aug. 18.

Last week, the airline's 7,800 fleet service workers, who load and unload airplanes, chose the International Association of

Machinists and Aerospace Workers to represent them in a runoff election against the Steelworkers.

But organizing the ticket and reservation agents is expected to be far more difficult than unionizing the fleet service workers. The reservation agents -- who staff phones at USAir's six centers nationwide -- and the ticket agents have traditionally identified more with management.

"In Baltimore, I don't think the strength is there for a union," said Bill Clauss, 30, a gate-ticket agent at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. "Workers at some of USAir's other airports, like Pittsburgh, Charlotte [N.C.] and Philadelphia, which are far busier than BWI, may feel just the opposite."

The union needs approval from a simple majority of these employees.

The Steelworkers, who have never represented airline workers, are the only union on the ballot to organize the ticket agents and reservation clerks, though the Machinists are waging a write-in campaign.

The issue of union representation has grown in importance as the financially struggling USAir tries to cut $1 billion in annual costs, with half of that coming from labor.

If the Steelworkers are successful in organizing the agents, USAir will have considerably less flexibility in cutting costs.

The fleet service workers and reservation and ticket agents -- representing more than 17,000 workers -- were the largest nonunionized groups remaining at the Arlington, Va.-based airline. Previously, half of the company's 45,000 workers -- mostly pilots, flight attendants and mechanics -- were organized.

The campaign among USAir's nonunion workers -- one of labor's largest organizing efforts in recent years -- gained considerable momentum when USAir laid off about 2,500 nonunion workers in January.

Union leaders also have targeted USAir's hiring of more part-time workers. In its efforts to boost productivity, USAir has increasingly used part-time workers to offset the peak-and-valley nature of its traffic, particularly at hubs like BWI. But labor insists the airline is moving further toward a low-paying, part-time work force with few or limited benefits.

But depending on when they were hired and how much seniority they have, many of USAir's part-time workers receive benefits. That could blunt the impact of the union's argument.

Mr. Clauss, for example, who has worked for USAir 12 years, receives health insurance for himself, but not his family. As a part-time worker, he is guaranteed 25 hours a week but he frequently supplements his income by working overtime or for another agent.

"A majority of the people here seem happy with the hours they get," Mr. Clauss said.

What angered some workers, however, was a temporary cut in pay and benefits that all USAir employees took in 1992.

"Some people were unhappy about the concessions," Mr. Clauss said. "That's one reason there is impetus for the union now. But if an airline is doing poorly, how can a union go and get something from the carrier that's not there?"

Since 1989, USAir has lost more than $2.2 billion, and most analysts say a renewed effort for major concessions from labor is key to the airline's survival. It's not clear whether the company will seek cuts from its newly organized fleet workers or ticket and reservation agents.

During negotiations in 1992, the airline's unionized workers received job protection guarantees in exchange for pay and benefit cuts. Nonunion workers did not. As a result, nearly all of USAir's 2,500 layoffs earlier this year came among nonunion workers.

The Steelworkers are hoping to convince ticket and reservation agents that they need both job protection and a greater voice in the airline as USAir seeks to restructure.

Indeed, faced with declining membership nationwide, the Steelworkers' drive to organize the agents has prompted an aggressive organizing campaign. But Bob Callahan, an organizer for the Pittsburgh-based steel union, said last week the USWA would intensify its efforts, pumping more money and staffing into the USAir organizing effort as the reservation and ticket agents return mail-in ballots.

"These employees realize that if they fail to organize they would be the only major group of employees with no voice in their futures at USAir," he said. "That is a mistake they are not willing to make."

But the Steelworkers union concedes that it lost momentum last week when the airline's fleet workers chose to join the Machinists by nearly a 2-to-1 margin. The Machinists already represented more than USAir 3,500 mechanics.

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