Baggage handlers at Southwest Airlines are no longer baring their chests to boast that “Bags Fly Free” in company ads.
Instead, dozens of ground workers picketed outside Dallas Love Field on Tuesday, with signs featuring Southwest’s new heart logo broken in half and the words: “It’s Just a Machine Without a Heart.” That played off the Dallas-based carrier’s new television ads that say, “Without a heart, it’s just a machine.”
More than 10,000 Southwest ground workers have been without a new contract for more than three years, and talks between Transport Workers Union Local 555 and management have been tense. Although both sides met this month to negotiate, they hadn’t met since July.
At Love Field, union members passed out fliers to passengers leaving for Thanksgiving trips saying that Southwest has mishandled more bags this year than any other major U.S. airline.
“Southwest is putting profits before people,” said Charles Cerf, president of Local 555. “We’re afraid that over the years [the lost bags] will erode our customer base.”
The union cites recent reports from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics that Southwest lost 439,770 bags from January to September this year, a rate of 4.31 reports per 1,000 passengers. Southwest ranked ninth out of 12 carriers, with three regional airlines faring worse. American Airlines ranked eighth with 345,610 bags lost, a rate of 3.76.
In the past few years, Southwest has started flying larger Boeing 737-800s, which can carry more bags, and its network has grown with the acquisition of AirTran Airways. Yet the company has not hired more ramp workers to maintain its quick turnaround times at airports, the pickets said.
And with the end of the Wright Amendment restrictions and the start of long-haul flying at Love Field, ramp workers are handling heavier bags that must be loaded onto larger planes.
“We’re going nonstop to all these great destinations now and making these record profits,” said Melinda Miles, a 10-year ramp worker for Southwest who lives in Fort Worth. “And yet for some reason, they can’t give their people a contract for three years. I think that’s a little bit too long and a little bit ridiculous.”
The company has been in contract negotiations with ground workers since July 2011, and the union members have not had a pay raise since 2010. The two sides filed for federal mediation in September 2012.
Southwest said it shares the union’s sense of urgency to reach an agreement.
“Reaching the right deal for both employees and the company remains a top priority, and it must be one that is fair to all employees, enables the company to grow, and protects our position as a low-cost leader in the industry,” the company said in a statement.
With more flights from Love Field, Southwest’s cargo operations have also increased, but the staffing has not, said Shawn Clark, a freight agent at Southwest.
For example, the freight crew used to handle 10 to 15 overnight cargo shipments and now it’s handling more than 30 a night. Clark said the company has added only one employee to help his department.
Southwest acknowledged that its “Bags Fly Free” policy attracts more customers to the carrier, particularly since most competitors charge for checked bags. As far back as the 1980s, Southwest said, it carried an average of 80 bags per 100 passengers, and it’s the same today.
“Staffing has increased at a higher rate than bags handled, and today, the annual number of bags handled per ramp agent has declined,” the company said.
In a newspaper ad that ran Tuesday, the union asked, “Has Southwest lost its way?”
“Losing bags is bad — but eventually they find their way home,” says the ad, which appeared in USA Today. “Losing a successful company culture can be forever.”
Informational picketing also took place at Southwest’s operations in Baltimore and Los Angeles.
Shannon Jones, a ramp worker at Love Field for seven years, said employees are not disgruntled, just disappointed.
“I love working here. We just want to see that the company’s founding principles are adhered to,” Jones said.