Alaska Airlines workers rally again for higher wages, job security

John Walters helped organize a rally of Alaska Airlines workers at Juneau International Airport in Dec. 2018. Photo: Zoe Grueskin/KTOO.

John Walters rallies Alaska Airlines workers at Juneau International Airport on Saturday. Walters helped organize the rally. (Photo by Zoe Grueskin/KTOO)

Alaska Airlines workers rallied across the West Coast on Saturday, calling for job security and higher wages — and a resolution to slow moving contract negotiations.

At the Juneau International Airport, around 15 employees took part. They sported the same neon green t-shirts worn at a similar event three months ago. The front reads “$how us the money.” On the back: “United we bargain, divided we beg.”

John Walters has worked for Alaska Airlines for nearly 20 years handling bags. He said he loves his job and looks forward to coming to work each day. But he has some concerns. Pay starts at $12 per hour, and according to Walters it increases slowly. Plus, employees of the Seattle-based company work contract-to-contract.

The most recent contract technically ends this year. But negotiations for a new one between Alaska Airlines and its workers’ union, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, have already stretched over 14 months.

Walters said this is unusual. Typically, he said, contract negotiations have gone smoothly, and rallies like the one on Saturday — and the one held in September — are rare.

Walters is a member, not a representative, of the union, but he helped organize the rally. He said he’s not shy about sharing his feelings, and right now, he’s frustrated.

“We’re still trying to get our message across,” Walters said. “I don’t think the company takes us seriously. When we sit down at the negotiating table we tell them we want livable wages, and they kind of laugh at us.”

Carolyn Sharp says she's seen "a lot of good, a lot of bad. It's a great company. It just needs to step up a little bit," during a workers' rally at Juneau International Airport on Saturday. Sharp has worked for Alaska Airlines for 31 years.

Carolyn Sharp says she’s seen “a lot of good, a lot of bad. It’s a great company. It just needs to step up a little bit,” during a workers’ rally at Juneau International Airport on Saturday. Sharp has worked for Alaska Airlines for 31 years. (Photo by Zoe Grueskin/KTOO)

In a statement, Alaska Airlines said it does not talk specifics while union negotiations are underway. The company said it pays fair, competitive wages and provides quality benefits to its employees.

Tension within the airline was aggravated in April, when the Puget Sound Business Journal published a story revealing that Alaska Airlines executives had gotten large pay raises as the company merged with Virgin America. For example, CEO Brad Tilden’s compensation jumped 35 percent to $5.7 million in 2017. The journal reported that meant Tilden was earning 115.5 times more than the company’s median employee.

Kaleb Rosa, president of the Local 2202, said that news triggered unrest among workers that’s still unfolding with events like the rally. Rosa is optimistic, but he said they had an unpleasant surprise during the last round of negotiations. That’s when Alaska Airlines proposed a new financial package, outlining everything from wages to vacation and retirement benefits.

“It was not anywhere near what the negotiators were expecting. It was a low ball,” Rosa said.

Negotiations resume Tuesday in Seattle. Rosa said airline workers there will hold another rally.

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