Sky Talk

Southwest Airlines suspends 100 ramp workers, alleges illegal sickout

Members of Transport Workers Union 555, ground workers at Southwest Airlines, at an informational picket at Dallas Love Field last year. The union and management have been in contract negotiations for over four years. (Star-Telegram/Joyce Marshall)
Members of Transport Workers Union 555, ground workers at Southwest Airlines, at an informational picket at Dallas Love Field last year. The union and management have been in contract negotiations for over four years. (Star-Telegram/Joyce Marshall) Star-Telegram

About 100 Southwest Airlines ramp workers are not feeling the love from their employer this holiday season after they were suspended without pay through January.

The Dallas-based airline says the workers used a personal time off policy to take part in an illegal work stoppage in November which affected operations at airports in Los Angeles and Orlando prior to the busy Thanksgiving travel season. The suspensions range from 45 to 90 days; workers were notified of their suspensions on Dec. 8.

The Transport Workers Union, which represents over 11,000 ground workers and baggage handlers, said the suspensions are in retaliation for some workers using the time off to attend a “strike preparedness” meeting held by the union.

“It was pretty much anyone who took that day off, they were suspending them,” said TWU Local 555 President Greg Puriski, adding he was shocked by the company’s actions.

A similar meeting was held in the Metroplex on Friday and was attended by 75 employees, Puriski said. The union held two meetings, one in the morning and then another in the afternoon, so members would not need to take time off to attend.

The TWU and Southwest management have been in contract negotiations for four-and-a-half years and have yet to reach agreement. The parties entered federal mediation in 2012 but have not made any progress on a tentative contract.

In November, Southwest filed a lawsuit against TWU Local 555 for what it deemed an “illegal work action.” The lawsuit said ramp workers staged an illegal sickout at four airports in Southern California on Nov. 18 and planned another in Orlando for the Friday before Thanksgiving. The work stoppage in Orlando did not occur, and the lawsuit is still pending in federal court in Dallas.

“We support all our employees and their right to express their opinions,” said Southwest spokesman Bob Hughes. “In this case, however, their union encouraged them to abuse a contractual provision to cause havoc on the system.”

Under the Railway Labor Act, airline unions are not allowed to strike unless federal mediators declare that negotiations are at an impasse and a 30-day cooling off period has occurred.

Some of the suspended workers didn’t even attend the meeting, according to a flyer sent out to Local 555 members. San Diego operations agent Sarita Zouvas spent the day buying a turkey, setting up tables and chairs for the annual “friends giving day” party she hosts at her home for other Southwest employees who have to work during the holidays.

Rafael Zavala, who works as a cargo agent at the Ontario, Calif. airport, said he took the day off to care for his seven-year-old son and two-year-old daughter while his wife went to a funeral for a co-worker.

“Never in my eight-year career have I used a personal day,” said Zavala, who didn’t attend the union meeting or plan to do so on that day. “Because of the situation, I didn’t have anything else to use.”

Zavala said his wife has picked up overtime shifts at her job at Kaiser Permanente to help make ends meet during the holidays. But he is worried about the family’s finances and tries to keep busy around the house, cleaning and fixing things.

“It’s stressful and it’s frustrating,” Zavala said, adding he is not allowed to return to work until Jan. 24. “It hurts almost in a way that they did this to me and my co-workers.”

Hughes said the company interviewed about 200 workers who took time off that day and, based on the interviews, it determined about half were not related to the sickout that it believes the union conducted. Southwest determined that some workers may not have attended the meeting but were still supporting the illegal job action.

“We determined circumstances that the company deemed was in violation of the contract,”’ Hughes said, noting the company does not comment on individual cases. “This was not retaliatory in any way.”

The union set up a GoFundMe account to accept donations to help the affected workers make it through Christmas. So far, they have raised about $70,000 to distribute to the suspended employees.

“We’re in uncharted waters for our members,” Puriski said. “We have never gone this long in negotiations before.”

Southwest has reached several new contracts with labor groups this year. However, this fall, both its pilots and flight attendants rejected proposed contracts. Negotiations with those unions are expected to restart next year.

Andrea Ahles: 817-390-7631, @Sky_Talk