Harry Lombardo, a former Philadelphia transit worker, said he plans to listen to local leaders in the transit, rail and air divisions to find out what the members of the union need. Lombardo replaces Jim Little, who has been president of TWU International since 2006 and decided to not run for reelection.
The TWU, which represents mechanics, fleet service clerks and ground workers at American Airlines and flight attendants at Southwest Airlines, is holding its quadrennial convention this week in Las Vegas.
Lombardo took a few minutes during the convention to talk with the Star-Telegram about the new direction of the TWU.
ST: Now that you’ve been elected president of TWU International, what position do you believe the union should take on the American Airlines-US Airways merger as the two carriers fight an antitrust suit filed by the government to stop the deal?
HL: That’s a serious question. I think the most responsible answer I can give you, I really can’t discuss details about the merger. I’ve only been elected yesterday. I need an opportunity to convene a meeting of our American Airlines and US Airways local presidents. I do not intend to lead this organization from the top down. I intend to lead it from the bottom up and to listen to the rank-and-file as well as to the local leaders and build consensus on what our position should be. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not afraid to lead and I’m not afraid to make decisions but I feel much more comfortable making those decisions after I’ve listened to the people who know best in regards to what our membership needs. But additionally, I haven’t met a US Airways executive or Doug Parker and I think it would be much more appropriate for me to have those meetings with our presidents and some initial contact with the airline executives before publicly making any declarations.
ST: There has been criticism from the local members that the TWU did not fight hard enough to keep maintenance jobs in the U.S., particularly here in Fort Worth where American closed its Alliance maintenance base last year. How do you respond to that?
HL: I can’t respond to what happened or did not happen. I can respond to the criticism and that’s why as part of our campaign we pledged that we would indeed restore authorities for representing members to our locals as opposed to International employees and representatives imposing the will of International on the locals. With regards to fighting outsourcing that is indeed not a problem that is exclusive to the TWU and our mechanics at any of our overhaul bases. That’s a problem that the entire airline industry faces. In fact that’s a problem that America faces. Corporate America, whether it is public or private sectors, have decided they can cut their costs and labor costs by outsourcing. So it’s a national problem and quite frankly we hear political leaders of this country talk about creating jobs but we don’t hear any of them really standing up to protect the jobs we have by posing quick fix solutions like outsourcing. So we’re going to be very aggressive in terms of our political programs and political outreach to create a dialogue that doesn’t just isolate and alienate a particular group of workers at a particular time and reasonable on what’s happening in America, not just what’s happening at the TWU.
ST: The TWU has faced representation challenges from other national unions who want to represent your members. How do you plan to keep your members from choosing another union over the TWU?
HL: It’s a very complicated question. My first instinct would be to have discussions with the leadership of those other unions to try to discover you know what makes them think they can pick us off instead of organizing the literally tens of millions of Americans who are not organized. But with regards to our members, what I would say to them is I believe a significant number of our members who support in some way some notion they should get out of the TWU because it hasn’t met their needs. I would say that there may have been times when the TWU hasn’t met their needs but overall the TWU is one of the best organizations in the country in terms of representing our members in terms of our history of struggle and success. I believe that once we are able to develop better communication systems and methods and truly open up a more democratic process during our formal meetings, I believe that a lot of those members will find that in spite of being frustrated, that there is no need to leave the TWU, that there is a seat at the table for everyone and that we will work diligently every day to regain their trust and their faith. But I think political frustration with the leadership has caused people to feel hopeless and therefore to believe that they need to try a new organization. Changing unions is not like changing shoes. What I like to think is that we’ve now had a change of leadership. We’ve had a change in leadership that has been based on a very specific series of campaign pledges. We have taken our campaign pledges and we have converted them into resolutions that our International executive counsel and board have approved. And now as of today, our delegates in the convention have approved. Those resolutions are going to create a very new reset for how the International interfaces with its locals and we believe over time that we will win the support of our members and restore the pride that our members in general have in the TWU. We don’t have these problems with regards to perception of International in the transit division or in the railroad division. These political infights have very significant historical paths, perhaps ten, fifteen, as much as twenty years and as difficult as that path may be we are going to talk about what’s right for the TWU and build off of what’s right for the TWU instead of focusing on all of our time on the negative.
ST: What does the TWU need to be doing in the airline industry and your air transport division to gain more members or locals as you reach out to those who are not currently unionized?
HL: We’re going to take a whole look at our organizing department and what our approach has been for the last ten years. Unfortunately I believe that we have been in lock step with the labor movement. We have simply jumped out there and built up our organizing staff and when I say that I mean in terms of fulltime employees of the International as organizers and I don’t think we’ve been very successful with that approach. I think our approach once again is going to be requesting and working with our locals to identify targets for organizing in the regions that they function in as locals. I think we’re going to take a look at downsizing the number of fulltime organizers that the union, that the International has. And we are going to indeed rely more on local officers and local members who can identify targets and we’re going to try to utilize people from the skill sets that we’re trying to organize from within our organization to organize them. For example at Allegiant, our organizing department has played some role over there but by in large we have relied on members from Local 556 at Southwest who are indeed flight attendants to interface with those members because they have more in common and they can break down the barriers and the fears of people, the fears from their employer from choosing to organize.
Photo courtesy of the TWU.