Alaska Airlines management is preparing to flex some muscle to face down its baggage handlers amid contract talks and discussions on whether...

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Alaska Airlines management is preparing to flex some muscle to face down its baggage handlers amid contract talks and discussions on whether to outsource the union’s work.

As negotiations with the union approach an end-of-the-month deadline, the company has asked for management volunteers who are ready to load and unload passenger bags at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

And tomorrow, at the Seatac Holiday Inn across from the airport, Menzies Aviation Group, a U.K.-based subcontractor of air-terminal services, is holding a recruiting drive for “eight-week temporary, full-time” nonunion baggage-handler positions in Seattle.

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Union members believe that Menzies is likely recruiting a temporary work force for Alaska Airlines to cover any disruption. A Menzies representative at its Sea-Tac office said yesterday that he had no information on the purpose of the recruiting drive.

Alaska Airlines has acknowledged it is considering outsourcing the baggage handlers’ work, but spokeswoman Caroline Boren said yesterday that “the company is looking at options … and we have made no decisions.”

Dean DuVall, an Alaska Air Group managing director, sent an e-mail memo to the management team on Jan. 13, stating that because the company has opened the work at Sea-Tac to competitive bids, “the result could be that the company outsources the Seattle ramp.”

The “ramp” is the industry term used for the baggage-handling system; baggage handlers are referred to as “ramp agents.”

DuVall’s memo laid out some contingency planning in advance of a target date of Jan. 31 to make a decision on the baggage-handling work.

“As a precaution,” the memo said, “we are asking for volunteers who would be willing to work the ramp during a transition period or in the event of a work action by the union.”

The e-mail memo states that volunteers must be willing and able to handle “what could be a negative reaction from other work groups.”

The union representing the baggage handlers is a local of the International Association of Machinists. The same union represents a separate Alaska Airlines bargaining unit for its clerical and office workers.

District 143 president Bobby De Pace flew into Sea-Tac from Minneapolis, Minn., yesterday for negotiations that promised to be very difficult.

“The myth of the family spirit at Alaska, that’s over, that’s done. Never have I dealt with a more callous group,” De Pace said. “This is not your parents’ Alaska Airlines anymore.”

De Pace said that during the contract negotiations the company has raised its earlier demand for wage and benefit concessions to $18 million, from $2.1 million.

“If we don’t give them a deal they’ll farm the work out,” he said. “We’re not going to entertain that.”

“I’m from New York,” De Pace added. “Where I come from we call this extortion.”

Alaska’s Boren declined to comment on De Pace’s statement that the company is demanding $18 million in concessions. “In the midst of active negotiations we can’t comment on any details,” she said.

The airline is in negotiations with all its unions and has publicly asked employees for a total of $112 million in wage and benefit concessions.

Alaska Air Group posted operating losses of $88.9 million in 2002 and $11.1 million in 2003. In 2004, its earnings again have been hit by low fares and high fuel prices; it will report the year’s earnings figures Friday.

Duvall’s memo states that Alaska is asking for contractors to bid on the Sea-Tac work “to make sure that the company truly understands the market rate for this work.”

An ad placed by Menzies for its temporary work force indicates what that market rate may be: Menzies is offering $8.75 an hour, $1.40 over minimum wage.

The positions, which according to the Menzies applications, involve “exposure to loud noises and fumes from fuels and other chemicals,” have no benefits.

Alaska’s work force is averaging $13.40 an hour.

On the union Web site, a message says: “We must make a stand together shoulder-to-shoulder, downstairs, upstairs, reservations, stock clerks, clerical, all of us. If [Alaska Airlines] chooses to get rid of their employees we all will go down fighting.”

Because of labor laws that govern the airline industry, the union does not have an option to strike.

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or