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Alaska Airlines announced Friday it had laid off 472 ramp employees at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, replacing them with contract workers to cut costs amid rising fuel prices and competition from low-cost carriers. Alaska Airlines spokeswoman Caroline Boren said the decision came more than a year and a half after the company set out to reach a contract settlement with ramp workers, who handle baggage and guide planes to and from terminal gates. “It’s been a very hard decision,” Boren said. “But given the current environment — the high fuel prices, trying to move out of four years of losses and facing some stiff competition from low-cost carriers — we felt the $13 million in savings annually was something we had to pursue.” Robert Roach, Jr., general vice president of transportation for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, called the layoffs a “unilateral and illegal lockout” and said the union would take legal action to win back workers’ jobs. “If Alaska is looking for a fight that may prove fatal to the airline, they have found one,” Roach said in a statement released after the layoffs were announced. Reading from the contract, Boren said it gives the company the right to “contract out any work for which the company’s cost exceeds the vendors’ charges less material.” Alaska, the nation’s ninth-largest airline, has about 10,000 employees and is the dominant carrier on north-south routes along the West Coast. It hired Menzies Aviation contract workers to replace its ramp employees in Seattle, its biggest hub. Contract workers handle ramp service at most of the airline’s destinations. Menzies provides ground services for more than 500 airline customers worldwide, including Alaska Airlines in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, Calif., Portland, Ore., and all the company’s Mexican destinations. Roach said the layoffs violate the union’s collective bargaining agreement with Alaska and the Railway Labor Act, which bars any unilateral contract changes while an agreement is in place. The current contract began in 2000 and became amendable on Jan. 10, 2004. Contract talks started in September 2003. Members of Machinists District 143 voted down the company’s latest contract offer May 6 and gave union negotiators authority to call for a strike. Last September, Alaska closed its Oakland, Calif., maintenance facility, laying off about 750 employees. A month earlier, the company said it was cutting about 200 management positions. The company expects to save up to $35 million from those cuts. Last month, an arbitrator handed Alaska pilots a contract that included pay cuts averaging 26 percent and higher employee health care contributions, which Alaska expects will save the company $80 million to $90 million. The Air Line Pilots Association filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Seattle Friday afternoon, seeking to vacate the arbitrator’s decision, claiming, among other things, that rules about setting wages were not followed. Alaska Airlines, a subsidiary of Alaska Air Group Inc., has 20 days to respond. Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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