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A United Employee Strives to Cope With the Carrier's Downfall

Like the struggling airline, mechanic Tom Campbell is cutting spending to survive.

January 20, 2003|James F. Peltz | Times Staff Writer

After 10 years as a cop, Tom Campbell had had enough. The stress was too much, especially for his wife, Karen. So in 1995, Campbell took a job at United Airlines.

Now they're feeling a level of stress they never imagined.

United is in bankruptcy proceedings after an agonizing downfall over the last two years, leaving Campbell worried about his job, his four children, his future.

"I could lose my job tomorrow," said Campbell, a 42-year-old mechanic, electrician and overall handyman for United at Los Angeles International Airport. He thinks about looking for work elsewhere but said: "Have I put applications in? No. I'm not throwing in the towel."

Neither is United, and that gives the Campbells hope. The airline, the main unit of UAL Corp., is striving to emerge from Chapter 11 protection as a smaller but stronger carrier. Amid the travel slump caused by the weak economy and the terrorist attacks, United has lost more than $4 billion over the last two years and has laid off more than 25,000 people.

More layoffs are likely as United shrinks further, a prospect that strains the daily lives of Campbell and United's other 72,000 full-time employees -- about 20,000 of them in California.

In the meantime, they're being forced to take pay cuts to help the airline, based in Elk Grove Township, Ill., avoid being grounded forever. A bankruptcy judge earlier this month approved United's request to immediately cut the wages of Campbell and his fellow mechanics by 13%.

Prolonged Labor Strife

United's troubles stem, in part, from a long, bitter feud between United's management and its labor unions -- and rifts between the unions themselves -- that poisoned the benefits United expected to reap from being majority-owned by its employees. The workers, through a stock ownership plan created in 1994, own 55% of UAL's stock and have seats on UAL's board.

But Campbell also personifies how the lines running between United's management and its unionized workforce aren't always rigid. For Campbell, who serves as a local official for the mechanics' union, the International Assn. of Machinists, it's not a case of one side being right and the other wrong. He's torn between the goals of his union, his desire to see United bounce back and his need to stay working.

"I'm not hard-nosed, even though I grew up in a union family," he said. "I try to have an open mind."

That's not surprising, some observers say, given that United is in such dire shape.

Workers "are much less militant at the individual level, typically, than you might surmise" from reports about management-labor strife, said Aaron Gellman, who heads the Transportation Center at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. At United, he added, "they're smart enough to know that if they're not reasonable under the present conditions, they're not going to have jobs."

Faced with such a harsh reality, Campbell finds himself having to mimic United and cut his own spending to make ends meet.

There are fewer movies and dinners out. Spending on his children, who range in age from 8 to 20, is more guarded. Campbell put on hold his plans to remodel his modest four-bedroom house in Torrance. The Campbells' dislike of using credit cards has given way to needing them to stretch payments.

"There's plenty of blame to go around" for United's collapse, Campbell said. "But I never thought we'd be in the fight of our lives right now."

From Cop to Mechanic

High school sweethearts who married 21 years ago, Tom and Karen Campbell moved to Southern California from their native Philadelphia in the mid-1980s. Campbell's dad was a union carpenter who taught his son skills in woodworking, electrical repair and mechanics.

Tom Campbell instead chose law enforcement, becoming a cop in Philadelphia and later a Los Angeles County deputy sheriff. But then he moved to United, both to leave the pressure of police work and to benefit from the discount fares United provides employees, so that he could visit his family back East.

Campbell -- who fixes the airline's baggage conveyors one day, its computer-electrical system the next -- enjoys working for United. "It's a great company," he said.

Noted Karen: "This is the only job he's ever had where he loves everybody there."

But Campbell said starting in the summer of 2000, he could see United faltering. A dispute between the airline and its pilots, combined with poor weather and record numbers of passengers, resulted in thousands of flights being delayed or canceled. Travelers were outraged, and United's reputation was badly tarnished.

"Karen would see something on the news or in the paper, and she would ask me" about it, Campbell recalled. "I wouldn't have any answers for her because I had never experienced this before. That's when I first felt like, yeah, there's something wrong here. It's not clicking."

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