Union Sues United Airlines Over Plans to Cut Workers’ Hours

A United Airlines Boeing 737 Max airplane takes off in the rain at Renton Municipal Airport in Washington last year. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

(CN) — United Airlines was accused in a federal lawsuit Tuesday of planning to reduce thousands of union workers to part-time status after accepting billions of dollars in federal Covid-19 relief funds.

The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers and its District Lodge 141 sued the airline in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.  

According to the lawsuit, United promised in April to maintain its staffing levels and employee salaries until the end of September.

“Less than two weeks later, however, after repeated attempts to induce voluntary leaves of absences and reductions in pay, United declared that it intended to unilaterally slash the pay and benefits of approximately 27,000 of its Passenger Service and Fleet Service employees by forcing them all into part-time positions,” the union said in the 13-page complaint.

The union asked the court for an injunction against United’s alleged plans.

It quotes United as stating in a press release that the billions in relief dollars from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act “will be used to pay for the salaries and benefits of tens of thousands of United Airlines employees.”

The union also says United agreed with the U.S. Treasury Department on April 20 to refrain from reducing staffing or payroll.

Pointing to their collective bargaining agreement, which runs through the end of 2021, the union argues that its consent is necessary before United can make “substantive changes” to the deal.

“At no point in any collective bargaining negotiations leading up to the current collective bargaining agreements did the parties discuss, much less agree to, the possibility of having a purely part-time work force under any circumstance,” the union states.

United informed the union on May 1 that “all full-time employees covered by the Passenger Service Employees Agreement and the Fleet Service Employees Agreement will be reduced to part-time status” as of May 24, according to the lawsuit.

In addition, the union claims that its members must make an “irrevocable decision” by May 13 to accept this status or elect a furlough, separation or retirement.

The union estimates that the changes would reduce its members’ pay and benefits by 25%.

In addition to seeking an injunction against the May 13 decision deadline, the union sued United for breach of contract and violation of the Railway Labor Act’s “status quo” requirements.

John Grunert of Guerrieri, Bartos & Roma is representing the union. 

Mike Klemm, president of IAM District Lodge 141, blasted the airline in a statement.

“For United to obtain federal funds under the false pretense that it would protect its workers through September and then turn around and do this to their most loyal workforce struggling to survive during this pandemic is unconscionable,” Klemm said.

United, for its part, said in a statement that the lawsuit is meritless.

“This action is the latest proactive, cost-cutting measure we have taken to offset an unprecedented drop in travel demand,” the company said. “Our overall goal remains to preserve as much financial flexibility now so we can not only survive this crisis, but thrive once it is behind us.”

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