FINDING ALLIES IN UNLIKELY PLACES

Here's one for you: Why did the travel agents postpone their meeting in Washington last week?

They couldn't get reservations. But more important is why they want to meet in the first place. Some agents are up in arms over their recent treatment by the airlines.Many airlines have reduced travel agents' commission to 8 percent from 10 percent - a 20 percent cut - and have capped commissions at $50. That means a $1,000 ticket, which once would have earned the agent $100, now brings in just $50.

Agents are hoping a union can provide them some strength in their battle. After shopping around, they went to Machinists District 15 in New York and New Jersey.

The International Association of Machinists already represents 130,000 people who work for airlines, said Steve McLoughlin of Machinists District 15.

The union hopes to have the airlines considered the de facto employer of an estimated 200,000 travel agents nationwide, ''so we can collectively bargain for a higher commission,'' Mr. McLoughlin said.

The logic may sound zany, but District 15 has been making such arguments recently. It won a case before the National Labor Relations Board involving New York limousine drivers and the car companies that employ them. The workers had been considered independent contractors, Mr. McLoughlin said, but the union contended that the companies were really employers because they owned the cars, took a share of the earnings and set the work conditions, even telling drivers when to wash the cars.

Now the union is organizing the 10,000 such drivers in New York. It's also organizing doctors in New Jersey - and 500 have already joined. For them and for some pharmacists, HMOs are seen as their employer for bargaining purposes.

When the union sent out faxes to agents saying who it was and what it wanted to do, 5,000 replied they were interested.

Mr. McLoughlin accuses airlines of ''trying to put a squeeze on travel agents at every level.'' The airlines have long relied on agents to sell 80 percent of their tickets, but with the advent of electronic ticketing, they are ''trying to grab back some of that,'' he said.

Jim Brown, TWA media relations director, said TWA has lowered the commission to 8 percent but hasn't set a cap - in part because it has had a traditionally close relationship with travel agents and relies heavily on them.

But the union's argument for representing the agents - that they're employees of the airlines - makes little sense, Mr. Brown said. Travel agents work for the owners of their agencies, he said.

Machinists District 15 had planned a meeting Wednesday to formally create a union ''to confront the major airlines.'' The unit was to be known as the Travel Agents Guild.

While most people planning to attend were from the New York, Washington and Philadelphia areas, many weren't. So it's been put off until after the New Year, said Blake Fleetwood, president of the new TAG and a New York City travel agent, to let other regions participate.

Bill Hamilton, a Washington union consultant helping the effort, calls it ''outside-the-box kind of organizing.''

''There are a lot of people out there who traditionally haven't been targets and haven't thought of themselves as targets for unions, but who now find themselves helpless. You might say labor is discovering them at the same time they're discovering labor.''

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