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Southwest attendants ready for long talks

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By The Baltimore Sun
Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Audrey Stone doesn't hesitate when asked how long contract negotiations will last between Southwest Airlines and the flight attendants union she leads.

“As long as it takes,” Stone said on a recent morning in Baltimore — a city she has called home since 2004 despite regular commutes to Dallas, where Southwest is headquartered.

As president of Transport Workers Union Local 556, which represents more than 10,500 Southwest flight attendants nationwide, Stone is the lead union representative at the table with the airline as the parties negotiate a contract with broad implications for the airline's workforce.

For decades, Southwest has been known for relatively peaceful negotiations with its worker groups, a reality that industry observers chalk up to an in-house mantra of valuing employees — the company's stock-ticker symbol is LUV — and the strong unionization of the company's workers.

But negotiations with some of its unions — including ground workers — have stretched for more than two years as the company attempts to adjust its workforce amid growth, Stone said.

The company is growing, having acquired AirTran, and is eyeing overseas markets, and growth often prompts efforts to change contracts, airline industry analysts said.

Southwest proposals have been floated to scale back sick-leave accrual and other benefits for some work groups, Stone said, and she doesn't know if that represents an across-the-board culture shift for the company that she'll have to confront.

If so, things could get bumpy in coming months, as her talks with the company shift from agreeable aspects of the flight attendants' contract to issues of benefits and compensation, Stone said.

“Our negotiations are really going to be the test for whether the culture has really changed,” said Stone, a Texas native who lives in Mount Vernon, Md. “We're prepared for similar proposals, but hopeful they have learned after protracted negotiations that the employees are not going to stand for it.”

Stone entered into negotiations with Southwest officials in June.

Brandy King, a Southwest spokeswoman, said the company's goal in negotiations with all of its workers is to “remain the best place to work” and to secure the company's future.

“In order to achieve this goal, we are always looking to improve efficiencies; reduce unnecessary costs; reward our outstanding employees; and continue to partner with our work groups,” King said in a statement.

Stone said much is at stake.

One issue of concern for flight attendants is how the airline intends to work out logistics with its larger Boeing 737-800 planes, which carry more passengers than the standard Boeing 737 and take longer to board, disembark and prepare between flights.

The turnaround of a 737 takes about 20 minutes, while a 737-800 takes 45 minutes to an hour, Stone said.

Flight attendants are paid per hour while flying, but aren't paid when not flying, so “from the flight attendants' perspective, the time of their day when they're not getting paid has increased,” Stone said.

The hourly wage for Southwest flight attendants starts at $22.36 for new employees to $56.29 for the most senior, according to Stone.

Seniority issues with the hundreds of incoming AirTran flight attendants have been worked out, with Southwest flight attendants getting an extra 2 12 years of seniority over their AirTran counterparts, Stone said. But tensions remain as AirTran flight attendants transition to Southwest hubs.

Seniority is a major issue for flight attendants because it is a key determinant in how they get to select routes, hubs and schedules.

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