DALLAS (CN) - Southwest Airlines sued its ground workers' union in Federal Court, to try to stop an alleged mass "sick out" during this week's hectic Thanksgiving holiday.
The Dallas-based airline sued the Transport Workers Union of America, AFL-CIO Local 555 and four of Local 555's officers on Thursday evening.
Southwest claims Local 555 held a "strike preparation meeting" in Los Angeles on Wednesday and is encouraging members to invoke collective bargaining leave provisions to take unpaid, short-term leave to attend.
The absences led Southwest to declare a "state of operational emergency" at its Ontario, Calif., operation. Ontario, pop. 165,000, is in San Bernardino County, 35 miles east of Los Angeles. LA/Ontario Airport is the 15th-busiest cargo airport in the nation.
"In order to ensure its continued service, Southwest attempted to obtain temporary replacements from Southwest's other locations," the complaint states. "At the union's urging, however, many of those individuals refused to come into the station. Southwest therefore enlisted a contingent team of supervisory employees from a variety of locations as backup support at its Ontario and Burbank stations."
A majority of union members - 110 of them - were absent from work Wednesday at four airport stations in Southern California, including Burbank, Ontario, Orange County and Los Angeles, Southwest says.
"Indeed, at Southwest's Burbank station not a single ramp agent showed up for work on November 18," according to the complaint. "Due to defendants' unlawful, coordinated refusals to report to work, Southwest expended significant sums in order to obtain temporary personnel coverage."
Southwest claims more call-outs are planned for Nov. 29, the first Sunday after Thanksgiving and one of the busiest flight days of the year.
Defendant Greg Puriski, Local 555 president, disputed the claims Friday. He said the union "has no intention of causing any disruptions during the holiday season" and is "a little frustrated" that Southwest decided to sue.
Southwest is "accusing us of illegal job actions when all we're having are regional meetings to discuss our options under the Railway Labor Act," he told The Dallas Morning News. "We had one meeting in California, where we had more than triple the expected attendance. That's how frustrated our members are."
Southwest has been negotiating with the union for a new collective bargaining agreement since 2011. "A lot of our members haven't had a raise in five years," Puriski said.
Southwest spokesman Bob Hughes said Friday that the parties are under the guidance of a federal mediator with the National Mediation Board, who has not released the parties to self-help.
"Southwest's legal team believes the union violated terms outlined in the Labor Relations Act and felt an obligation to respond to the action," Hughes said in a statement Friday.
Southwest seeks declaratory judgment that the union violated the Railway Labor Act and a permanent injunction. It is represented by Ann Marie Arcadi with Morgan Lewis in Dallas.
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