US Airways/AMR Merger Means a Labor Union Must Exit

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CHARLOTTE ( TheStreet) -- The illusion of labor harmony in the merger of US Airways and American, approved 10 days ago, has shattered, with two unions battling to represent flight attendants once the merger is completed.

The Association of Professional Flight Attendants represents about 16,000 American flight attendants, while the Association of Flight Attendants represents about 8,000 US Airways flight attendants. Over six months during the spring and summer, leaders of the two unions periodically negotiated, finally reaching an understanding that would, over time, have seen the AFA depart after representing US Airways flight attendants for 65 years. But now the two sides disagree on whether that understanding was a preliminary one or a near-final deal.

Without a deal, a representation election is likely. With twice as many members, APFA would be favored. But the outcome would be far from certain.  The wild card is that APFA signed a bankruptcy contract, albeit a bankruptcy contract far better than the one American initially proposed. Now, APFA leaders say some AFA members are already circulating representation cards, in advance of requesting the National Mediation Board to hold an election.

"We are very concerned because this is a critical part of the merger," said Lenny Aurigemma, a 34-year flight attendant based at John F. Kennedy International Airport and a member of the APFA executive committee. "We know a representation dispute will create discord for years to come. And we would love to not have that happen."

APFA President Laura Glading emerged as the leading labor advocate for the merger. She was part of a trio of union leaders who won support from creditors in American's bankruptcy case. Then she oversaw negotiations for a bridge agreement with US Airways, a template for a post-merger flight attendant contract. Later, she was a leader in rallying opposition to a Justice Department lawsuit that sought to block the merger. She may be among this century's most important labor leaders.

But labor politics are tricky. Dave Bates and Jim Little, who led the Allied Pilots Association and the Transport Workers Union, are both gone, defeated by the impossible logistics facing a union president in a bankruptcy case, even though both, like Glading, were key enablers of a merger that benefited not only their members but also US Airways workers. In a representation election, Glading's leadership would be a key issue.

US Airways flight attendants are led by Roger Holmin, a 24-year flight attendant and long-time union activist who has been union president since 2012. He was elected to a three-year term in October. His first job was to convince members to approve a pre-merger contract agreement. After succeeding, he joined Glading to challenge the Justice Department lawsuit.

In the talks between the AFA and the APFA, "We worked to try to reach a consensual agreement," Holmin said. "What happened in the summer was that there was some draft language passed back and forth between us. It was eight points to discuss, in order to get to a final place.