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‘Dismayed,’ Missoula County backs Unifi workers at Missoula International Airport in wage dispute

Missoula Airport
Posted at 1:31 PM, Apr 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-23 15:31:03-04

MISSOULA — Many of the Missoula ground handlers released by Unifi Aviation Services this month for protesting wages have found new jobs with Alaska Airlines and the Missoula Airport Authority, doing the same job for higher wages.

They’ve also won the support of Missoula County commissioners, who wrote a letter to Unifi this week saying they were “dismayed” that the company chose to release the workers rather than address their concerns.

The six workers were asking Unifi to pay them the same wage the company pays similar workers at other airports, including Spokane and Kalispell.

“Some folks out there were getting paid paltry wages and summarily dismissed from their jobs when they put up a stink, which I find appalling,” Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier said. “This seems like something we could do, speaking on behalf of our values here in Missoula County and those workers who frankly look like they’re being taken advantage of.”

Former Unifi employee Jared Bonnie, one of the strike organizers, said the company’s ground handlers were receiving an entry-level wage of $9.65 an hour. That wage caps out at $10.40 after six years, he said.

In comparison, a sign outside Taco Bell on Brooks Street says workers there can make $13 an hour. Bonnie said the county’s support has been rewarding during this month’s events.

“They messaged me personally to inform me they’d signed the letter and sent it out,” Bonnie said. “It’s amazing to see the county willing to do that, and we have so much community support backing us. I hope that Unifi sees it and understands the wages they have and the wages they chose to keep here in Missoula are just outrageous.”

Unifi handles ground handling and ramp services for United and Delta airlines at Missoula International Airport, along with other national airports.

The Missoula Airport Authority has its own ground handlers serving American and Allegiant airlines, who make around $13 an hour. Alaska Airlines has its own crews, who make around $12.51 an hour.

After the workers went on strike earlier this month and were released by Unifi, they were approached by both the Airport Authority and Alaska Airlines with jobs.

“We’ve all been offered other positions between the other airlines. The other airlines have been massively supportive for us,” Bonnie said. “It’s amazing for those businesses to come out and talk to us the day it happened and ask if we needed anything. They wanted us as employees.”

In its letter to Unifi, Missoula County makes a claim of fairness, accusing the Atlanta-based firm of “being removed from the impact” its decisions have on its everyday workers in Missoula.

“We were dismayed to learn that, rather than work with them to address their requests, Unifi chose to dismiss them from employment instead,” the county wrote. “This is especially disappointing in light of recent news reports confirming that Unifi pays employees working in other Montana communities a higher, more fair wage.”

In recent years, both the city and county of Missoula have worked to increase the wages for starting non-union employees.

The Missoula City Council adopted a $15 minimum wage law for non-union city employees in 2018. The county also has worked to increase entry-level wages for its employees to $15 an hour.

It’s been an incremental effort taken during collective bargaining.

“Both the city and county have been working very hard to increase positive working conditions, not only in our shop, but encouraging that across the community,” said Chris Lounsbury, the county’s CAO. “We’re encouraging the company (Unify) to work towards that in the Missoula area as well.”

The Living Wage Calculator places a living wage in Missoula at $14.46 an hour for a single adult, or $30.24 for an adult with one child. The current minimum wage in Montana is just $8.65 an hour.

According to the county, around 85% of its employees are members of collective bargaining units, and the county negotiates in good faith with each of them. The county believes such practices help it recruit and retain a talented workforce.

The airlines operating at Missoula International Airport chose who they contract to handle ground services. The county is urging the Airport Authority to remind Delta and United of those options.

“We will encourage board members to work with their airline partners, the Federal Aviation Administration and others to make sure that those they enter into contract with are adequately compensating their employees for the work they do,” the county said.