After two years of labor-management strife, more than 650 baggage handlers, skycaps and wheelchair attendants at Los Angeles International Airport are poised to come in for a soft landing. Their employer, Argenbright Security Inc., has announced a hands-off stance in a representation vote at the end of June.

The agreement, between Atlanta-based Argenbright and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1877, covers staffers at three terminals who work for Delta, Northwest or United, as well as international carriers at Terminal 2. It marks a major milestone in the “Respect at LAX” campaign, a joint effort of the SEIU and the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Union, backed by the national AFL-CIO and several South Central community groups.

Bringing an end to its stop-the-union propagandizing and pressure — which involved arbitrary disciplinary actions and threats of layoffs, and has resulted in the filing of several dozen unfair-labor-practice complaints by the SEIU — Argenbright agreed that, during the upcoming election period, “No officer, manager or supervisor will express any opinion” on the choice. Argenbright will also give union organizers free access to break rooms and bulletin boards. The arguments for the union seem to have already been absorbed by an overwhelming majority of the work force. In a neutrally supervised “straw vote” of 400 workers last September, the union won by a ratio of 9 to 1, the union says.

“It’s been long and tedious, but our struggle has not been in vain,” declared Dionicia Robinson, a wheelchair attendant and mother of two working for $5.75 an hour. With a monthly gross of $920 she says she takes home $840 after taxes, half of which is eaten up by rent.

Still outside the umbrella of union representation are some 250 Argenbright baggage screeners; a decision on their future is deferred to another day, union and management spokesmen agreed, because of security concerns. The SEIU has one contract with airport-security screeners in Chicago, at O‘Hare Airport, but nationwide this is not a heavily unionized sector, said an SEIU officer. Some 6 percent of LAX’s baggage handlers and service workers remain outside the agreement‘s protection. Their employers, Globe and Huntley and ITS, are now likely to become the focus of the SEIU’s attention, said union‘s representative Mary Anne Hohenstein.

The agreement governs California’s two largest airports, covering 700 to 800 workers at San Francisco as well as employees here, says SEIU Executive Vice-President Eliseo Medina. Discussions with the company went on for five or six months, he said, but their pace may have been accelerated by the upcoming Democratic convention and this year‘s successful janitors strike. This could set the pattern for how this kind of issue will be resolved with other employers, Medina added. “We’ve had an ongoing battle with Catholic Healthcare West, which in theory believes in Catholic social teachings on workers rights, but which is being sued by the National Labor Relations Board for violating those rights,” he says. “Now Argenbright, a private company, is saying it‘s up to the workers to make the final decision themselves. We hope other enlightened employers will see this as a viable alternative to a costly battle.”

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