American Airlines passenger service agents, the only major employee group at the carrier not unionized, began voting Tuesday on whether to be represented by the Communications Workers of America (CWA) union.
About 9,700 airport agents and reservations representatives are eligible to cast ballots in a vote being conducted by the National Mediation Board (NMB), said Chuck Porcari, a CWA spokesman. Voting ends January 15.
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"All of the other work groups at American are unionized, and we're not," said Bridget Powell, a passenger service agent with American and union activist. "When it comes to negotiating with the company, we don't have that option."
The U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for the vote last week when it denied American's request for a stay of an earlier ruling that upheld the election.
"We're encouraging all our eligible employees to vote," American Airlines spokesman Bruce Hicks said. "It's a very important election for them."
American says it sought to block the union vote because at least half of the eligible workers didn't show interest in joining a union, as required by a law that took effect this year.
The NMB said that the older, 35 percent standard should apply because the union had filed for an election before the law changed earlier this year, according to the CWA.
The CWA says a union is needed to protect American's agents, who perform tasks such as checking in passengers and taking customer service calls, as the company has been outsourcing agent jobs and cutting pay and benefits.
American parent AMR , which has about 80,000 non-management employees, is reorganizing under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in an effort to cut costs. Earlier this year it reached agreements with its unionized flight attendants and ground workers on contracts that it said cut costs by 17 percent.
American's pilots are due to wrap up voting on a tentative agreement on Friday that offers an initial 4 percent pay raise and a 13.5 percent equity stake in AMR after it exits bankruptcy.
American offered equity stakes of 4.8 percent and 3 percent, respectively, in contracts it reached this year with unionized ground workers and flight attendants.
(Reporting by Karen Jacobs; Editing by Alwyn Scott and Leslie Gevirtz)