The rumored "sickout" by some Southwest Airlines ramp workers didn't materialize yesterday as travelers crammed airports nationwide at the start of the busy Labor Day weekend.
The Transportation Workers Union, which represents the airline's 5,000 ramp agents, said its members were showing up for work as usual, despite rumors earlier this week that workers at some airports were planning a wildcat sickout aimed at pressuring the airline for labor concessions.
"Everybody I've talked to, if they're scheduled to work this weekend, they're working," said Gary Shults, president of TWU Local 555. The local represents about 200 Southwest employees at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
BWI is expecting to handle more than 365,000 travelers this weekend, prompting airport officials to recommend that travelers arrive two hours before their scheduled departures to avoid delays.
Labor Day will be another test for the nation's strained airport system, which has been beset with frequent flight delays all summer.
Southwest, consistently named one of the "100 best places to work" by Fortune magazine, has suffered strained relations with the TWU since negotiations began in December. The National Mediation Board appointed a mediator last week and talks are scheduled to resume Sept. 19.
Southwest moved to squelch any rumors about a Labor Day slowdown by posting a letter on its Web site reassuring customers that no disruptions are anticipated. Union leadership has made similar comments.
"In fact, the union has informed members that any type of slowdown would be illegal and detrimental to the negotiating process," said Southwest spokeswoman Christine Turneabe Connelly.
Neither side is talking publicly about the contract negotiations. But Southwest has admitted that it suffers from severe staffing shortages at some airports, including BWI.
The airline has had to temporarily import ramp workers from other cities to handle work in Baltimore. Southwest is the dominant air carrier at BWI, with more than 110 daily nonstop flights.
Up to a third of Southwest's ramp workers in Kansas City have been flown in from other cities to help out temporarily, Shults said. Mandatory overtime is a fact of life for such workers.
"I've had agents who have worked so many [mandatory overtime] hours, they just break down and cry," Shults said.
The airline says it has increased its recruiting efforts by holding more job fairs and has raised wages in some locations, including Baltimore. But unemployment is low in Maryland and elsewhere, leaving the airline with an increasingly small labor pool to choose from.