Southwest Airlines labor issues mount as 6,100 customer service employees reject deal

Southwest Airlines executives are trying to figure out why its 6,100-member customer service union overwhelmingly rejected a contract proposal with wage increases, signing bonuses and overtime protections, adding to the carrier’s list of labor worries ahead of the pivotal summer travel season.

Southwest workers who deal with airport counters and gates and customer field calls rejected the contract earlier this month, the second time since October that employees have rejected a business contract.

Neither the company nor the union say why employees turned down the tentative contract, which provided immediate 6.5% raises, 3% raises each for the next three years, a $1,000 signing bonus at 3 $000 and mandatory overtime protections.

But the rejected deal comes at a time when Southwest Airlines is scrambling to hire workers, from gate agents and ramp workers to pilots and mechanics. It also comes as businesses across the country and around the world face pressure to raise workers’ wages and provide better working conditions with the highest demand for workers in decades.

“We want to pay our employees well,” Southwest Airlines CEO Bob Jordan said at the company’s annual shareholder meeting on Wednesday. “We want contracts for our employees.”

“There are two sides to this and it’s a process, but our desire is to balance them out,” Jordan said.

Southwest Airlines has already cut more than 20,000 flights this summer as it tries to reduce its schedules to accommodate the number of staff it has. The company has hired about 9,000 people since last fall. But the customer service segment is still down more than 1,000 employees from before the COVID-19 pandemic, and this group will need to be boosted as traveler numbers return.

The union representing the workers, District Lodge 142 of the International Association of Machinists, did not respond to requests for further information on why the workers rejected the agreement. Ahead of the vote, local union president John Coveny said he was confident the deal would get union support.

Southwest Airlines President Mike Van De Ven said the union is now coming back to members of the inquiry to ask why they don’t want the deal.

Dallas-based Southwest has tried to balance growing travel demand with a smaller, battered workforce after two years of pandemic flight.

Southwest is also in significant contract negotiations with the pilot and flight attendant unions, which have each expressed frustration with how the company is handling the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and how it has treated its workers at the over the past two years.

There are now open contract negotiations with more than 41,000 workers at Southwest, more than two-thirds of the company-wide workforce.

It’s not uncommon for a union to reject an airline contract once, twice or even three times, but that’s when the company struggles to understand what members want, said Robert Mann, a former pilot who is now an airline industry analyst with RW Mann and Co.

“Some of those expectations for a new contract may be the kind of expectations they had in 2018 or 2019,” Mann said. “But now things have changed and it may be due to inflation, where an increase of 6% now and 3% next year might not seem like a lot because no one expects the inflation is this low in a year.”

Southwest has already raised its minimum wage rate twice in the past 18 months, from $13 to $17 an hour, so any increase for unionized customer service workers would be on top of that. .

Although there is a shortage of pilots testing the industry, customer service workers are in particular demand as stores, restaurants, call centers and thousands of businesses seek employees with skills. similar.

“Carriers recognize they bid and people ghost them on the first day of work,” Mann said. “Working for an airline doesn’t seem so appealing these days when flight privileges aren’t as valuable because the flights are so full.”

Southwest Airlines cuts 20,000 summer flights and increases hiring to prepare travelers

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