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Workers at America West Airlines Beat the Odds to Form a Union
September 24, 2004

After years of hard work and dedication, 3,100 customer service representatives for America West Airlines have finally won a voice at work.  On August 17, 2004, the workers voted to join the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (Teamsters).  Although the majority of America West staff is organized, the customer service division had to overcome stiff resistance from the company.  Despite facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles—including legal hurdles and threats from America West—the workers can now collectively bargain with the company to negotiate fair wages, benefits, and working conditions.

The predominantly female customer service representatives (CSRs) at America West, which includes reservation, ticket, gate and baggage service agents, helped build the company into a successful low-priced airline.  While America West has become a thriving, profitable business, its CSRs have endured low wages and inadequate benefits.  The CSRs sought to form a union to address these concerns.  

These workers face "low pay and poor benefits because they do not have a voice at work." 
-- Arizona State Representative
Meg Burton Cahill 

The current starting wage for CSRs at the company is $7.65 per hour, making this workforce one of the most underpaid in the industry.1 The CSRs also organized to improve benefits, which have become unaffordable.  In fact, some employees have seen their insurance costs increase by 900 percent in the last year.2

According to union organizers, America West executives were resistant to their workers’ requests for higher wages, claiming the airline couldn’t afford it.  However, the company is one of the few major carriers to return to profitability following the September 11 attacks,3 and recently gave CEO Doug Parker a $1 million bonus.4

Two years ago, CSRs first attempted to form a union to address these issues, and nearly two-thirds signed cards indicating they wanted representation by the Teamsters.  However, America West embarked on a campaign which led the pro-union majority to dwindle and eventually lose the vote in favor of union representation.  During the campaign, America West held meetings in which “statements were made to employees about what [joining] the union will take away from you.”5  

This year, the CSRs were determined to organize despite resistance by America West.   More than 65 percent of CSRs from 46 airports and three reservation centers signed cards requesting a formal vote for union representation from the National Mediation Board, the federal agency that oversees the enforcement of labor laws governing the workers.  However, America West engaged in an anti-union campaign according to union organizers.6 Pro-union workers were fired during the campaign, employees attended mandatory and voluntary anti-union meetings, and threats were made by management to engage in mass layoffs or subcontract CSR jobs elsewhere.7 

Fact Sheet: Obstacles to Organizing under the Railway Labor Act

In addition to overcoming the anti-union conduct of America West, workers also had to overcome legal obstacles in order to form a union.  Employees in the railroad and airline industries are not covered by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which covers the majority of private-sector employees, and instead are covered by the Railway Labor Act (RLA).  The RLA requires that in order to form a union, there must be support from a majority of eligible company employees, not just the employees who participate in the union election.  In contrast to NLRA elections and democratic election processes, those who don't vote are counted as 'no' votes in RLA 'elections.'

Further, RLA requires that in order to form a union, workers must obtain majority support from ALL of the employees in the company, nationwide.  In order for America West workers to organize, they had to coordinate with fellow CSRs at airports and call centers across the country to ensure that a majority would turn out to vote in favor of union representation.  This makes the efforts of America West workers all the more impressive because it required a massive amount of resources, communication, logistics and dedication for them to organize under this system. 

The CSRs' vote for union representation at America West is one of the largest victories for workers in the private sector this year.  Sandy Assaraf, who has worked in reservation sales for four years, spoke of the benefits of being union: "I'm a terrific employee…yet I'm always insecure.  I feel I will have security now."8 

America West employees can now begin the collective bargaining process to win improvements in job security, wages, and benefits.  Their success also has implications on a larger scale—demonstrating that it's possible to organize in the face of considerable difficulties.  This triumph gives hope to all the workers attempting to organize under arduous labor laws and resistant employers.


Want More Info?

Read our fact sheet on obstacles to organizing under the Railway Labor Act. 


1. Yantis, John. "Employees at America West Airlines May Turn to Union for Better Wages." East Valley Tribune. July 30, 2004.  
2. Ibid.  
3. Ibid.  
4. Gilbertson, Dawn. "AmWest's Customer Reps Vote to Unionize." The Arizona Republic. August 18, 2004.    Pg.1D.  
5. DeFalco, Beth. "Some America West Employees Decide Against Union." The Associated Press State and Local Wire. November 8, 2002.  Business News, BC Cycle.   
6 Telephone interview with Rebecca Hanscom, International Brotherhood of Teamsters Organizer.  September 3, 2004.
7. Ibid.
8. Gilbertson, Dawn. "AmWest's Customer Reps Vote to Unionize." The Arizona Republic. August 18, 2004.  Pg. 1D. 
9. "America West employees vote on union representation." 
Phoenix Business Journal. July 29, 2004.