Flying Right

After almost a month of pressure from the L.A. City Council, the Airport Commission and labor unions, a three-carrier consortium dominated by Northwest Airlines conceded defeat in its attempt to replace long-term service employees at Terminal 2.

The veteran wheelchair attendants, baggage handlers and screeners and skycaps, in limbo since LAX Two changed contractors at the end of June, have been promised their jobs back -- as is mandated by the city‘s Worker Retention Ordinance. However, few are back at their posts yet, and it is unclear when they will resume work.

The workers have been in a holding pattern since June 26, when Northwest et al. ousted their employer, Argenbright Security, a few weeks after Argenbright agreed to let them vote on union representation in a June 30 election. LAX Two brought in Aviation Safeguards, a small and troubled New York--based firm that handles services in Tom Bradley International Terminal, as the replacement contractor. Aviation Safeguards, which also took over baggage-screening and skycap functions from Huntleigh and ITS, initially intended to staff Terminal 2 with new hires, supplemented by a few experienced Bradley Terminal hands.

In the face of pressure on several fronts, this plan was abandoned. Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1877 mobilized fellow unionists and supportive clergy for a raucous demonstration at the terminal on June 22, lending credibility to union threats of disrupting Northwest operations during the Democratic Convention. This was a prospect unwelcome to any business, but particularly unpalatable to the high-profile Democrats on Northwest’s board of directors -- gubernatorial candidate Al Checchi, former Vice President Walter Mondale, and Senator Dianne Feinstein‘s spouse, Richard Blum.

At the same time, the City Council and the Airport Commission made clear that they had no intention of seeing the Worker Retention Ordinance flouted, signaling their seriousness by keeping the renewal of Northwest’s landing rights up in the air, passing it several times but moving to revisit the question at the next meeting. By mid-July, Northwest was ready to retreat.

In early July, Aviation Safeguards took one step forward, notifying 26 former Argenbright workers that they were still needed, but also insisting that passing the pre-board screeners test was a requirement for all employees -- excluding baggage handlers. Meanwhile, Northwest told the Airport Commission that everyone who had earned protection under the Worker Retention Ordinance (all employees with one year or more on the job) would be rehired. But as of July 26, says SEIU organizer Eddie Iny, neither the 26 nor any others were back at work.

In a conference call Monday, union negotiator Mary Ann Hohenstein said Northwest committed to starting the first 26 on July 26, and the others by August 31. However, Northwest station manager Joe Conlon told the Weekly that many ex-staffers hadn‘t filed an application or contacted the airline. ”It might be a couple of weeks,“ he estimated, before everyone could be trained and put in place. Replacements just hired by Aviation Safeguards, he predicted, would find safe berths at other terminals -- ”There’s a lot of job openings at LAX.“

”It sounds like they‘re just playing games,“ says Norma Torres, who collected the first unemployment check of her life last week. But it was only $90, and, says Torres, ”If I don’t have a job soon, I will have to move.“ Veteran wheelchair attendant Dionicia Robinson, one of the 26 first picks, paid this month‘s rent out of the vacation paycheck she received on termination, but the source of August’s rent is unclear. Robinson went in Monday to get her uniform but hasn‘t had her training yet. ”The abuse continues,“ she says. ”It’s time for them to start cooperating and treating us with a little respect.“


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