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Midwest Express: Flight Attendants Win

by staff |
October 1, 2002
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Milwaukee, WI - 450 members of the Association of Flight Attendants are taking a stand against a greedy, union-busting employer. While the rest of the airline industry was talking givebacks, this group of workers chose to fight back in a fierce struggle to get their first contract. After a three-week strike against the airline that began on Labor Day weekend, the flight attendants were able to get an agreement, which was worth putting to a vote by the members.

Flight attendants at Midwest Express airlines have been trying to get a union contract for years. First, they fought against management's vicious anti-union campaign. Then, they spent three years negotiating for a contract.

Just after Sept. 11, 2001, Midwest Express pulled its wage proposal off of the bargaining table and told the union that they would only get only what the other employees got. Management received millions of dollars from the money that Congress gave to the airlines. None of that money went to the workers at Midwest Express or at any other airline. The executives kept it all. Instead, Midwest Express management slashed the workers' retirement plan and stopped any pay increases for workers not covered by a union contract.

In the airline industry, the government - not the workers - decides when the workers can strike. Right before Labor Day, six months after the union requested to be released from negotiations, the government finally said the union could strike.

The flight attendants were smart. They knew that the law and the government favored the bosses. In this country, there is no real 'right to strike' because police will protect the company and allow the company to replace strikers with scabs. The workers knew that if they all walked out at once, management would place want ads, hire scabs and bust the union. So rather than conduct an all-out strike, the flight attendants used a strategy called 'Create Havoc Around Our System' - CHAOS.

In a CHAOS strike, the union controls the timing and location of the strike. The union announced to management that they could strike any flights, at any time, without notice. The flight attendants at Alaska Airlines successfully used the CHAOS strategy in the early 1990's.

To run a CHAOS strike, you need lots of membership participation and activity. Beginning in July, the union held at least three events per week, including picketing, leafleting at the airport, and major rallies. Beginning a couple of weeks before the strike deadline of Labor Day weekend, the union began daily events. Flight attendants all wore green ribbons in support of the union.

A few hours before the strike deadline, management's negotiating team dropped a crappy proposal in the union's lap and said, "Take it or leave it. This is our final offer." The union said, "leave it" and went on strike.

Management got nasty very fast. They changed work rules, changed flight attendants' schedules, cancelled vacations without notice, and tried to make life as difficult as they could. They hired scabs and threatened to fire any flight attendant who walked off on strike.

But the flight attendants fought back and stood strong. It's not easy to walk off a flight, with only your three co-workers, in the face of threats from management to fire you. But hundreds of flight attendants wore green tags that said "Geared Up To Strike" - GUTS - and volunteered to be the first to strike.

When management started training supervisors as scabs, the union was out there in full force picketing. Union members carried "scab clickers" around the airport and clicked when they saw scabs. When management said flight attendants could not write in green ink (to go with the green solidarity ribbons and green GUTS tags) as they were doing, the attack of the green dots began. Green dots were put on all reports. Union supporters in Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Chicago leafleted at the banks that financed Midwest Express, saying, "Quit financing union busters!"

And, most important of all, the CHAOS strike cost the company millions of dollars in lost bookings. The strike was the main story in Milwaukee for weeks. Passengers interviewed by the media said they were worried they were not going to get home. Management ran themselves ragged trying to guess when the union would strike a flight. If workers went out for a smoke between flights, management would rush in because they thought there was a strike. If the union picketed in Los Angeles, the rumor would spread that the strike would hit L.A. that day.

After three weeks of CHAOS, the union was able to get an agreement for the members to vote on - one that was way better than management's 'final offer.' And they did it without even having to walk off of a flight. The union members are voting on the proposal now.

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