America West Airlines customer service representative Debra Ewing says her 12-year-old daughter, Erica, makes more money hourly babysitting two children than she does as a gate agent for the hometown airline.
The Scottsdale resident is one of 3,400 reservation, ticket, gate and baggage service agents who began voting this week on union representation. Local politicians and union leaders gathered during a news conference Thursday at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport to urge employees to join the Teamsters, which already represents the Tempe airline's mechanics and stock clerks.
Ewing, a 4 1/2-year employee who makes $8.30 an hour, said she took the job because of the flight benefits and health insurance that cost $10 monthly. But within the last year, she said her insurance costs went up nearly 900 percent to $96 a month, expensive for someone making her wages, she said.
“If everything operated on a win-win basis, there wouldn't be a need for unions,” Ewing said. “But unfortunately, that's not how most businesses are, and the employees are the ones who suffer. And, in this case, our passengers do, too.”
The customers service representatives are the largest work group at the company and the last one that is not unionized. More than 65 percent of them from more than 40 airports and 3 reservation centers in the United States signed cards requesting Teamster representation. They began phone-in voting on Tuesday, and the results will be known Aug. 17. There are 1,400 representatives in the Valley.
It's the second time in less than two years customer service representatives are considering joining a union. In 2001, there were not enough cards signed to force a vote. In 2002, nearly 57 percent voted against unionizing. Since the last vote, employees said they gave the company a chance to make improvements, but conditions have only gotten worse and attrition has increased. Literature given at the rally shows the predominately female work force is one of the most underpaid in the industry, with starting wages as low as $7.65 a hour. Union organizers say the company should be more generous because it is one of the few major carriers to return to profitability following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
America West spokeswoman Janice Monahan, who attended the news conference, said the company prefers not to debate wage and other issues publicly. She did say while health benefits did increase, they are still inexpensive compared to most companies. “We respect their rights to seek formal representation,” she said. “We strongly believe in the benefits of working with employees.”