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Workers stage protest at Alaska Air shareholders meeting

 (Editor's note May 23, 2013: Corrects to clarify that baggage handlers, cabin cleaners and other airport workers have signed cards to join unions but have not been recognized as unions by their employers. Until that happens, they don't have legal status as collective bargaining units.)

Dozens of protesters including flight attendants, baggage handlers, and religious leaders turned Alaska Air Group’s annual shareholders meeting into a raucous affair on Tuesday.

The protest began outside with chanting flight attendants who haven’t reached a new contract with the company after 18 months of negotiations.

Jeffrey Peterson, president of the flight attendants union at Alaska Air, says the 3,100 flight attendants agreed to extend their contract in 2010 because of the recession. Now that Alaska Air is turning a healthy profit, he says it’s time for the company to increase their pay.

“Here we are today, and the company’s doing fantastic. And we’re looking to recapture some of those increases that we didn’t get during the extension,” he said.

Inside the shareholders meeting, a different group of workers staged a protest,  even bursting into song at one point. They also chanted: “Overworked, underpaid, that’s the Alaska way.”

The workers, who are employed by Alaska contractors, handle baggage and clean airplane cabins. A majority of them at five companies recently signed cards to join unions, but their employers haven't recognized them as unions. Until that happens, they don't have legal status as collective bargaining units.

Among the workers was Aden Hashi, a baggage handler for Alaska Air contractor Menzies Aviation. He says Alaska could require its vendors to pay more and improve working conditions.

“Alaska Airlines has the power and the responsibility to change around things for us, to give us hope,” Hashi said.

Reverend Mike Denton of the United Church of Christ is an Alaska Air shareholder and MVP frequent flier. He also urged Alaska Air CEO Brad Tilden to put pressure on the company’s contractors. 

"Alaska Airlines with the vendors they work with have a moral capacity and a moral obligation to make sure that those who work for those organizations are being treated fairly," Denton said. 

Tilden listened carefully and said he’s taking their concerns to heart. There was no audio recording allowed inside the shareholders' meeting, but Tilden said he’s hopeful the company can reach an agreement with the flight attendants soon.

Tilden added Alaska is putting together vendor guidelines to emphasize safety and respect for workers. He said keeping costs low is essential to the company’s survival. He’s watched too many airlines go bankrupt.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.