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Aborted Takeoff

It was the kind of sudden drop -- after a rapid ascent -- that could get the most seasoned traveler fumbling for an airsickness bag. Though they never left the airport, service workers at Terminal 2 were indeed feeling sick when they found themselves looking at joblessness only two days after a pivotal win in their two-year fight for unionization and better wages.

The fleeting good news came on May 30. Their employer, Argenbright Security, announced that it would end anti-union agitating. From here on out, Argenbright promised to take a neutral stance on unionization, bringing an end to propagandizing, disciplinary actions and threats of layoffs.

“It’s been long and tedious, but our struggle has not been in vain,” declared one wheelchair attendant and mother, who works at a salary of $5.75 an hour. She was one of more than 100 wheelchair attendants, baggage handlers and skycaps with reason to celebrate the agreement reached between Argenbright and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1877. It seemed a harbinger of a union triumph in a representation vote scheduled for June 30.

But on June 1, before anyone could even stage the victory party, LAX Two Corp., a three-carrier consortium dominated by Northwest Airlines, declared that Argenbright‘s own contract at Terminal 2 would be canceled as of June 26, leaving its employees in limbo. The new subcontractor, New York--based Aviation Safeguards, has made no commitment to keep Argenbright employees after the takeover. Many of them filed job applications, but as of June 20, say union sources, none of the Argenbright workers have been taken on.

And what of the new company? Aviation Safeguards’ “exacting standards for personnel selection and training set our services apart,” the company proudly announces on its Web page. But the specifics of these standards remain somewhat shrouded in mystery. Harold Williams can‘t seem to meet them, despite three complaint-free years as a wheelchair attendant in Terminal 2. A brusque letter responding to his application says only, “After careful consideration of your experience and qualifications, we have decided to hire another candidate who better fits our needs at this time.”

Elaborating, if not clarifying, local manager Sonny Williams says, “We’re basing our selections on our own hiring criteria.”

Such “exacting standards for personnel” have not always been applied to upper management at Aviation Safeguards‘ New York--based parent company, Command Security Corp. (CSC). Command Security’s Miami general manager, Guillermo Blanco, is now serving five years in prison for 22 counts of lying to the Federal Aviation Administration about falsified employee-background checks in 1998. The FAA affair resulted in the company‘s being fined and placed on two years’ probation in federal court this March.

In an unrelated civil action, Command is being sued by outside directors and some shareholders for fraud and concealment of assets. In 1998, company president William Vassell stepped down pending the settlement of this litigation to avoid having the company placed under the control of a court-appointed receiver in New York. CSC stock closed last week at 69 cents a share, a 50 percent loss in valuation from its January peak price.

“Replacing Argenbright with this outlaw bottom-feeding company, just after they‘ve agreed to hold an open election, would be devastating to our organizing efforts,” says SEIU’s Mike Garcia, president of Local 1877. He and other labor leaders are reaching out in several directions to avert that outcome, lobbying political figures from Mayor Richard Riordan to the city‘s airport commissioners, as well as corporate heavyweights at Northwest Airlines.

Northwest, unlike most corporations, has a board well-stocked with figures close to the Democratic Party’s inner circle, including former Vice President Walter Mondale and Lyndon Johnson biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin. Al Checchi, who spearheaded the airline‘s buyout in 1989 after its near bankruptcy and still holds more than one-eighth of the company, was a strong, pro-union contender in the Democratic gubernatorial primary two years ago. Richard Blum, financier and husband of California Senator Dianne Feinstein, controls a block of 5 million shares and sits on the board of directors.

The union’s Garcia says Checchi has been “noncommittal” but did open a door for Garcia to meet with Northwest‘s senior management. All these Democratic figures, Garcia believes, should be concerned about “the large potential for disruption if there’s continuing labor strife at the airport” during the Democratic National Convention, which takes place in Los Angeles in mid-August.

The best solution would be if Northwest reconsidered its choice -- based on the union-researched revelations about Command Security, says Johnno Shaffer, a key organizer in the AFL-CIO--backed Respect at LAX campaign. He says that workers should be allowed to go forward with the union-representation election they‘ve fought so long to obtain. However, says Shaffer, if Aviation SafeguardsCSC does take over, labor will press the company to guarantee all current workers their jobs.

Whether labor will get the city on its side is an open question -- although the city’s worker-retention ordinance does offer potential solace. This regulation, passed by the City Council in 1995, gives the long-term employees of city contractors the first crack at jobs when the city changes to a new contractor. The new contractor must give these workers 90 days to prove their abilities, although they can be fired for good cause.

The ordinance, however, automatically applies only to city contracts entered into after its passage. Northwest‘s 40-year master lease, signed in 1985, predates the ordinance. But attorney Erica Zucker, of the Living Wage Campaign, says that modifications to Northwest’s agreement since 1998 should be deemed sufficient to bring the airline under the ordinance.

While the legalities are sorted out by the city attorney, a sympathetic Airport Commission pledged this week to urge LAX Two Corp. to honor the spirit of the worker-retention ordinance.

A lunch-time demonstration planned for late this week could signal the start of a multiunion campaign involving civil disobedience. Workers told the Airport Commission they would do “whatever it takes” to protect their jobs.


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