Alaska Airlines baggage handlers arriving for work at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport just before 3 a.m. yesterday were met with a...

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Alaska Airlines baggage handlers arriving for work at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport just before 3 a.m. yesterday were met with a Friday the 13th surprise. Overnight, their jobs had been given to an outsourcing company.

All 472 of Alaska’s baggage handlers at Sea-Tac got the same message by phone or as they showed up for their shifts. By replacing the unionized baggage handlers in Seattle with contract workers from Menzies Aviation, the airline estimates it will save more than $13 million a year.

The decision came a week after union workers in Seattle and Alaska overwhelmingly rejected a contract offer that included pay and benefit cuts but also a guarantee of four years without outsourcing. The airline had warned since January that it might outsource the jobs if no agreement could be reached with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) District 143.

An airline official said the transition from IAM workers to Menzies went smoothly. The carrier decided Thursday night to cancel four flights at Sea-Tac, but most of its 130 departures from Seattle took off within minutes of their scheduled times, said spokeswoman Caroline Boren.

The carrier is working to cut costs in an industry facing high fuel costs, low ticket prices and competition from other carriers, including some that are slashing expenses while in Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. Late last year, Alaska announced the layoff of 900 managers, mechanics and aircraft cleaners, including almost 200 people in Seattle.

Union leaders said yesterday they will take unspecified legal action to try to save Seattle baggage handlers’ jobs. The union believes that by outsourcing now, airline management has violated the IAM’s collective-bargaining agreement with the carrier, as well as the Railway Labor Act, which covers transportation workers.

Severance for Alaska’s baggage handlers

Alaska Airlines is required by law to provide nine weeks’ pay and benefits to the 472 baggage handlers it let go in Seattle yesterday. It has proposed a severance package that would include:

Two weeks of base pay for each year of service, up to 52 weeks’ base pay

Cash payment of $3,000 to $15,000 based on years of service

One year of company-paid continuation of health care coverage

One year of travel benefits for employees and dependents for every two years of service

Source: Alaska Airlines

“If Alaska is looking for a fight that may prove fatal to the airline, they have found one,” Robert Roach Jr., general vice president of transportation for the IAM, said in a statement.

The airline filed a lawsuit against the union in March seeking to force the IAM into arbitration to determine whether its contract allows the jobs to be outsourced. Alaska officials believe the contract allows outsourcing in this case, and they went ahead without resolution of the lawsuit.

Alaska is required by law to pay full wages and benefits to workers for nine weeks, after which a severance package kicks in.

The carrier is discussing with union leaders the specifics of the severance offering. Employees also will be able to apply for jobs with Menzies Aviation.

One Seattle baggage handler with nearly nine years at Alaska said he would rather look for another job than work under the contract proposed by management.

“Given the pay and the level of respect we’ve been given by this company, to me personally, I’d rather go work somewhere else,” said the 26-year-old worker, who asked not to be named to protect his severance package.

Under the old contract, his pay would have reached more than $20 an hour within a few years. The proposed contract cut that top wage to about $15 an hour.

“That’s a big deal,” he said. “We can find work elsewhere for $15.”

The IAM represents 1,072 Alaska Airlines workers, most of them baggage handlers in Seattle and at 14 airports in Alaska. It also represents workers who provide supplies and spare parts at airports in various cities, including some outside the Northwest.

Alaska is keeping about 135 IAM workers in Seattle, including cargo handlers and people who provide supplies and spare parts.

The carrier already outsources baggage handling services at 41 of the 56 airports it serves. Menzies Aviation does the work for Alaska in several cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland.

Menzies Aviation, which is based south of London, does baggage handling and other work for 500 aviation customers in 21 countries. U.S. clients include Continental Airlines, US Airways, United Airlines, Northwest Airlines and Delta Air Lines.

Boren said baggage handlers from Menzies are subject to the same background checks and receive the same training as unionized workers.

“We’re committed to making sure we have the same high level of safety and security we always have,” she said.

Alaska pilots union files suit against airline

The union for Alaska Airlines’ pilots sued the airline yesterday in U.S. District Court in Seattle, seeking to vacate an arbitrator’s decision that, among other things, cut pilot pay by an average of 26 percent.

The Air Line Pilots Association, which represents Alaska’s nearly 1,500 pilots, alleges that the arbitration board, with Richard Kasher as arbitrator, failed to follow rules agreed upon by the carrier and the union regarding hourly wages, profit-sharing and provisions to protect the pilots’ jobs.

ALPA asked the court to vacate the April 30 decision.

Alaska Airlines spokeswoman Caroline Boren declined to comment, saying the company is reviewing the lawsuit.

Kasher, a full-time professional arbitrator based in Philadelphia, said it would not be appropriate for him to comment.

The union called the arbitration board’s decision “unconscionable” when it was released. For some pilots, it meant pay cuts of up to 34 percent. Under the new contract, most Alaska captains earn at least $133,000 a year based on a guaranteed minimum of 75 flying hours a month, according to an analysis by John Steinbeck, who runs an informational Web site for pilots.

Alaska said this week it expects to save $80 million to $90 million as a result of the arbitrator’s decision.

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or