A year after strike. Fired TWA flight attendants pursue accord with owner Icahn. Some want jobs back, others seek back pay
New York — Jim Glista holds up two fingers in a peace sign; he says it's his message to Carl Icahn, owner of Trans World Airlines. ``Let's work together,'' says Mr. Glista, who is preparing to demonstrate in front of Mr. Icahn's estate in Westchester County. ``We want to work.''
After only nine months as a flight attendant for TWA, he found himself out of work after he joined a strike that was later called off.
``It's the best job I ever had,'' says Glista, who is currently working as a reservations clerk at a New York hotel. ``Absolutely I'd go back.''
When the Independent Federation of Flight Attendants went on strike a year ago, TWA continued operating with 1,300 flight attendants who crossed picket lines and 3,000 new hires.
When the strike was called off after nine weeks, the airline was obligated, by a court decision, to recall 436 attendants. In another court decision, the IFFA was declared the official representative for TWA's flight attendants.
But some 5,000 flight attendants, like Glista, have not made it back to TWA employment, and the union is seeking reinstatement and back pay for its members.
A bad-faith bargaining lawsuit filed against TWA seems to be the only hope for resolution, say flight attendants.
TWA has not returned to the negotiating table. Some observers say the IFFA made a bad error in judgment in taking their workers out on strike instead of working with Icahn to tighten belts.
But many union members defend the action, saying that Icahn's intent was to drive the union out anyway.
``Labor did need a dressing down,'' says one. But she adds that when the union called off the strike and wanted to return to the bargaining table, it was obvious that management wanted to destroy the union.
``It's the old sweatshop mentality,'' says IFFA spokeswoman Patricia Stevens. TWA hired ``young and expendable'' new hires who will work for cheap wages, usually just for a couple years.
Life for the flight attendants who did not cross picket lines has been tumultuous. And there are indications that some new hires, who are paid $1,000 a month with no overtime, are having a hard time making ends meet. One young attendant in New York City, who found herself broke, worked an extra flight simply to get a dinner.
Many attendants ``based'' in New York City actually live in other cities since they cannot afford to live there on their salary, commuting to the city and sleeping in flight attendant lounge rooms while they wait for flights.
Many new hires are hesitant to talk about their experiences because, they say, they fear repercussions. And some striking flight attendants do not have much sympathy for them.
``TWA has turned the clock back 30 years,'' says Ms. Stevens. ``It took so many years to turn [being a flight attendant] into a profession.''
``The glamour fades,'' says Brad Bell, a union representative in Boston. ``It becomes a grind. Pay and benefits made it worthwhile.''
Of the 5,000 flight attendants out of a job, the average seniority was 16 years. In this past year, there have been ``a lot of foreclosures, divorces, and child-custody cases,'' Stevens says.
Roisin Magarino, an Irish immigrant, had planned to work three more years and then retire, going back to Ireland after 21 years as a flight attendant. The past year has been rough.
``I have been able to hold on to property I had acquired, says Ms. Magarino. ``My marriage is up in the air. I have been sick - it's stress ... I never thought in my 40s I would be thrown out on the street and have to start all over.''
Ms. Magarino has a job at a stock brokerage firm, but she would go back if there was a settlement. ``I want my retirement pay. [Icahn] thought he would break us. After 21 years I'll just go away?''
Some flight attendants have flourished in new careers. ``Emotionally it's been very good for me,'' says Eduardo DeRiz, who worked for TWA for 22 years. ``It showed me there is life after the airlines.'' Mr. DeRiz is now a tour escort, and if he went back, it would only be long enough to retire.
Jackie Ringbloom, with eight years as a flight attendant, has turned to waitressing and escorting bus tours. Dressed in her TWA uniform on her way to the demonstration, she says she had wanted to make a career of being a flight attendant.
``We hope we can reach some kind of resolution,'' Ms. Ringbloom says. ``We don't want to destroy [Icahn]. ... It's a great job. It's a life style.''