Air Division

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Black and white photo, man and woman who work for Pan Am in the 1940s  

TWU’s Air Division saw the rapid growth of the airline industry between the 1920s and the late 1940s as an opportunity to charter new locals and sign thousands of workers in a new industry into membership.

Left: Pan American employees were among the first airline employees to be organized. TWU was responsible for major victories on their behalf, including the 40-hour work-week.

Many workers in the field saw themselves as pioneers and air companies took advantage of this, acting as if working for their companies was a privilege. People spent a lot of time and money training for “Airman” certificates and on-job training, but could only secure jobs that paid little and required long hours. Airline employees needed a well-meaning and established union to support them, but until TWU organized workers in 1945, a number of air industry unions formed and reformed. None were able to achieve much progress.

The Pilots Association was formed in 1931, but airline labor did not become officially recognized until airlines were included in the Railway Labor Act in 1936. In the late 1930s, the Air Line Mechanics Association became recognized as representation for a large number of airline mechanics under the RLA, but management dominated the Association and it soon lost support of its rank and file members. The Machinists Association, formed in the 1930s, gained a number of company associations of airline employees, but weak organization before World War II, later wartime wage controls and lack of active leadership caused the Association to fail. By the end of the war, most airline employees were working long hours under poor conditions for terribly low wages.

For years we’ve represented the best of the airline industry. Our workers deserve the best so we continue fighting for the best wages and benefits possible. In the spring of 1945 a handful of workers from the Pan American overhaul base in Miami, Florida approached TWU to request organization. They asked for help ensuring that every airline worker be given the opportunity to bargain effectively for better wages, hours of work and working conditions. Eventually an election was held that resulted in TWU becoming the certified bargaining agent for the ground and flight service personnel of Pan American World Airways, the premier air carrier of the day.

TWU’s first victory for airline workers was the 40-hour work week. Employees were working a normal week of 48 hours, with time and a half paid for overtime. TWU quickly secured the 40-hour work week with no loss of pay for Pan Am workers.

In the mid-1940s, TWU organized new locals in Miami, San Francisco and New York to represent ground service employees. In September 1945, the union signed an historic contract with Pan Am.

  Candidate Barack Obama meets with TWU local 530 during the 2008 campaign

The following year TWU organized employees at American Airlines, which at the time was overshadowed by the size and wealth of Pan Am. In the decades since, the Air Division has scored many victories, as well as several bitter losses, most notably the shutdown of Eastern Airlines and Pan Am less than a year apart in 1991.

Right: During the 2008 presidential election campaign, Barack Obama stopped in Kansas City, Missouri where he met with TWU Local 530 members at American Airlines.

Today, TWU represents more than 45,000 workers in the airline industry in almost all class and crafts. Our members are employed by many carriers, some of which include Southwest Airlines, American Airlines, American Eagle, and Hawaiian Air. In addition to airlines, the Air Division also represents a diverse group of members who are firefighters, paramedics, spacecraft technicians, painters, mechanics and plumbers, just to name a few.


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