Air Wisconsin seems to be a place where it takes a very long time for a labor union to get a contract.
The little-known Appleton, Wis.-based company is the largest privately held U.S. airline and the only one with a woman – onetime TWA executive Christine Deister – as CEO. Its entire fleet of 64 Bombardier 50-seat aircraft fly under the United Express name for United Airlines.
On Tuesday, four years after a contract covering about 200 Air Wisconsin mechanics became amendable in October 2015, the International Association of Machinists said it had reached a tentative contract agreement.
“Your negotiating committee worked long and hard to achieve this deal that keeps you at the top of the regional industry and fully support it,” negotiators for IAM Local 142 told members in a post.
That deal includes pay increase, restricted the company’s ability to open non-IAM staffed maintenance facilities and maintains health care costs at current levels, the IAM said. The union said a contract covering a few dozen store clerks was ratified last year.
Now perhaps Air Wisconsin can turn its attention to its 300 flight attendants, whose contract became amendable three years ago in June 2016.
Flight attendants, represented by the Association of Flight Attendants, are becoming increasingly impatient. Last week, AFA wrote to the National Mediation Board asking to be released from mediation. A release, if it is granted, would trigger a 30-day cooling off period that could be followed by a strike.
Despite increasing U.S. labor activism, the last strike in the heavily unionized airline industry was by pilots at Spirit Airlines in 2010.
“We have been in mediation at Air Wisconsin for three years,” said AFA President Sara Nelson. “The company has barely moved. Now we’re turning up the heat. We need a release to bring negotiations to a conclusion.”
Next week, flight attendants will demonstrate at three Air Wisconsin crew base airports: Milwaukee on Oct. 15, followed by Chicago O’Hare, Washington Dulles and Milwaukee on Oct. 16.
At Air Wisconsin, flight attendants start at $15,000 annually, according to AFA. After a year on the job, they average $16,900 annually for working 85 hours of flight time each month, the union said. After ten years, annual pay is $31,900. Air Wisconsin flight attendant have an average of about five years on the job, the union said.
For health insurance, a single flight attendant pays about $3,000 annually, while a flight attendant with a spouse pays twice that, the union said.
Nelson said low wages at Air Wisconsin, as at most regional carriers, are largely a result of the industry being squeezed by the major carriers who contract with them for regional flights.
“The flight attendants live in poverty and the company’s wage proposal is at 2%,” Nelson said. “They fly under the United brand and United needs to help out. Fundamentally, the problem is that the mainline airlines scheme to keep employees providing 45% of domestic lift in poverty.”
AFA requested a release in May and the NMB said to continue mediated talks. Three negotiating sessions were scheduled, and two took place. “The company wasn’t moving at all, and the board didn’t bring us back for a third session,” Nelson said. “These actions show we are ripe for release.”
An Air Wisconsin spokeswoman did not respond to emails or phone calls regarding this story.
Air Wisconsin also took a long time to get to a contract with its pilots, who are represented by the Air Line Pilots Association. Pilots reached a deal late in 2018 after more than eight years of negotiating.