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Mesa Flight Attendants take 1st step toward possible strike
Source: The Houston Chronicle
Author: Andrea Rumbaugh
Mesa Airlines flight attendants, including about 440 in Houston who work aboard United Express flights, begin voting Tuesday on whether to authorize a strike for better pay and benefits.
"The company hasn't responded to anything else in the last five years," union president for Mesa Heather Stevenson said Monday. "We're left with no other option. They haven't given us another option."
Stevenson said the vote comes after five years of negotiations between the airline and the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA and two years in mediation. Mesa flight attendants typically make between $13,000 and $36,000 a year, she said, with most salaries on the lower end of that range.
The No. 1 priority, Stevenson said, is better pay. Mesa flight attendants are paid less than their counterparts on mainlines, such as United or American Airlines. But they also get paid 15 to 20 percent less than flight attendants at other regional airlines, she said.
"Our flight attendants are so far behind that they're unable to pay their bills by working here," she said.
Employees also want better insurance coverage at a more reasonable price, and they want more flexibility. She said flight attendants don't have options that their counterparts at other airlines get to guarantee they won't be disciplined if they miss work for a family emergency.
Jonathan Ornstein, chairman and CEO of Mesa, cited two primary reasons for not meeting the union demands earlier. First, he said, are the fixed-rate contracts Mesa signed with United Airlines and American Airlines. He said the profit margin is less than 5 percent, and there isn't a provision allowing Mesa to pass the cost of pay raises to its partners.
Ornstein also cited recent legislation that boosted the flying time pilots are required to have before they can be hired in commercial aviation. Increasing the minimum to 1,500 hours has put a plug in the hiring pipeline, and Mesa's excess money has gone to massive signing bonuses to lure pilots from other companies.
"I'm not saying it's fair," Ornstein said. "I'm not saying it's right. I'm not saying I agree with it. It's just the reality of the marketplace."
He said he wants to pay flight attendants more. But he was quick to add that if he agreed to the last proposal from the union, the airline would have run out of cash in 18 months.
Ornstein said the airline has never furloughed a flight attendant, and he doesn't believe the negotiations will culminate with a strike. He's confident they will come to an agreement with "significant increases in benefits and pay."
Phoenix-based Mesa Airlines operates as American Eagle from hubs in Phoenix and Dallas-Fort Worth and as United Express from Washington Dulles and Houston. It has about 1,100 flight attendants, with Houston its largest base.
United Airlines, which just recently got all of its own labor contracts in place, declined to comment.
Votes will be counted March 29 ahead of the union's next meeting with Mesa in early April. That meeting will be overseen by the National Mediation Board. A majority of flight attendants must vote for the strike in order for it to be authorized.
Approving the strike will add extra pressure to the negotiations, the union said. But flight attendants can't walk off the job unless the mediation board releases them.
If released, there will be a 30-day cooling-off period in which the union and company can continue negotiations. Flight attendants can go on strike at the end of that period if no agreement is reached.
If they go on strike, flight attendants would not launch a traditional full strike. The union instead implements CHAOS, Create Havoc Around Our System, in which, for example, flight attendants strike certain planes or departure cities.
That is meant to deter passengers from booking the airline without requiring every employee to go without pay.
"I hope it doesn't come to that," Stevenson said. "I hope that we can make an agreement and have our work valued."
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