Two weeks ago, Greg Puriski was loading bags for Southwest Airlines in sunny San Diego.
Now, Puriski, who was recently elected as president of the Transport Workers Union Local 555, hopes to bring a new perspective to contract talks between the Dallas-based carrier and its ramp workers union.
“It’s a fresh set of eyes and new person at the table,” Puriski said. “I’m hoping that at the table we’ll be able to change it a little bit to where we can get more dialogue going.”
For four years, the two sides have been negotiating but have been unable to reach agreements over wages and healthcares. Workers have not had a raise since 2011 and are concerned about proposed work rule changes, he said.
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At Southwest Airlines’ shareholder meeting in Houston on Wednesday, ground workers plan to picket outside, a stark contrast from a few years ago when ramp workers were a part of the meeting, exposing their chests with the “Bags Fly Free” message painted on their bellies.
In an interview on Tuesday morning, Puriski talked about his new position and the issues facing ramp workers at Southwest.
ST: What are the main concerns of Southwest’s ramp workers?
Puriski: Two of the big things right now are wages and our healthcare. Our wages have been stalled. A lot of our senior employees have not had a raise since 2011 and the starting pay for new employees is just a little bit over $10 an hour so we are very challenged in trying to recruit people to even work on the ramp for Southwest at the moment....Our healthcare costs have gone up. What we’re really trying to ask is that the company just continue that if they get a ten percent increase then they will only pass a 10 percent increase to us. We’re just trying to put some certain caps on it to where they can’t raise it more than what their rates are going up.
ST: How do you compare your approach to contract talks with your predecessor?
Puriski: It’s a fresh set of eyes and new person at the table. I’ve worked closely with my predeccessor over the years so i’m a little up to speed on what’s going on i just haven’t sat at the table. I’m hoping that at the table we’ll be able to change it a little bit to where we can get more dialogue going and I’m hoping that’s going to be answer to our problems...We’ve just been stalled for the last year and half and we have to figure out how to break the ice
ST: What do you think of Southwest’s announcement last week that it plans to hire 500 more ramp workers across its network?
Puriski: We encourage the extra staffing. We’ve been arguing that our staffing was at minimum levels ever since I can remember. We always operated on very thin margins when it came to staffing and now that we’re growing and our planes are bigger we just can’t continue to do things the old way. The staffing is necessary to continue the operations the way they would like to be done. So we encourage them to hire the 500 people but we also encourage them to get back to the table with us so we can raise those wages for the newcomers and the present employees so we can make it more appealing for the people.
ST: Southwest has taken delivery of larger Boeing 737-800 aircraft in the past few years. How does that affect the ramp workers?
Puriski: Those aircraft, inside the cargo hold on the bottom where we load the luggage, we do a lot where we’re sitting on our knees...We don’t have a lot of room to work within the cargo bin height-wise. For the length of the cargo bins, they are not quite doubled and in the front and the back but it requires two people to load the aircraft and that is where we’re being challenged right now out on the operations.
ST: Do you think you can get a new contract negotiated in the next year?
Puriski: That is my plan and that’s my game plan is hopefully to get one done this year. I’m very hopeful we will accomplish it.
ST: Why did you plan to picket the shareholder meeting in Houston?
Puriski: The picketing we’re doing tomororw at the shareholder meeting, that was really a grassroots by our members...Our membership let us know that they wanted to picket outside the shareholder meeting. That is the main reason we are doing it. Membership wanted to be heard. They are very frustrated and they just really want to be out there and to voice their opinions.