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Airline Workers Under Attack

by staff |
April 2, 2005
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Currently, as the top AFL-CIO officials discuss the future of the labor movement, management is attacking one of the few remaining densely unionized, high wage sectors. Airline workers are suffering a devastating attack on wages, pensions and work rules that are gutting union contracts over 50 years in the making. In the last several years, by using the bankruptcy courts and under the threat of financial liquidation, management has slashed billions of dollars out of airline workers’ pockets.

The list of airline managements seeking or already pocketing concessions is staggering. At first it was airlines on the financial brink such as Delta, United and US Airways that sought take-backs. Then, predictably, management at other carriers began smelling blood and seeking concessions, such as Alaska Airlines management, which is threatening to outsource mechanics jobs and slash thousands from the flight attendant and pilot union contracts. Or Hawaiian Airlines, which, despite earning profits, remains in bankruptcy and is demanding concessions from union workers.

The cuts are devastating. Flight Attendants at US Airways were once among the highest paid in the industry, with solid work rules and vacation practices won through decades of union struggles. Now, after two rounds of concessions, they are at best in the middle of the industry. The number of vacation days were cut almost in half, work rules slashed, pensions taken away, and wages went far below carriers such as Southwest. Under the recently approved US Airways mechanics agreement, almost half the jobs will be contracted out and people remaining will work harder for far less money.

Where does the power of the employer come from? To be sure, the bankruptcy courts have consistently sided with management, gutting contracts and stealing pensions. And the federal government, with the business-dominated National Mediation Board, is hostile to labor. Yet despite these obstacles, given the shaky finances of some of these carriers, even the threat of the strike gives the union the enormous power to force a company out of business.

The Association of Flight Attendants put out a call for a nationwide strike in the event a bankruptcy court voided the union contracts. This call, while militant and followed up by strike votes at several carriers, did not result in any strikes. Why? Because few workers are willing to risk putting an airline in bankruptcy out of business.

The real power of management lies in the fact that workers are competing against themselves - in a race to the bottom that guarantees working people will not win. Here, the lesson is what we have learned before, when the United Food and Commercial Workers led the race to the bottom in meatpacking in the 1980’s and when the United Auto Workers was decimated as locals competed for jobs.

That is why the Association of Flight Attendant’s call for a strike of all airline workers was so refreshing and met which such enthusiasm among frontline fighters throughout the airline industry. The rules of the game are set up for failure. What is called for is industry wide solutions, forcing industry wide standards, and newer and more militant tactics. Just like many times in the past, anti-union courts and politicians may claim these tactics are illegal. But just as in the old mineworker slogan went, “You can’t mine coal with bayonets,” you can’t run the airline industry without airline workers.

It is good that the AFL-CIO’s top officials are finally talking about the urgency of organizing, about streamlining the AFL-CIO, and making the unions more relevant. Ignored for years, these are key elements to restoring labor’s power. But as the example of the highly unionized airline industry shows, density is not enough. At the end of the day, the key question is how can workers win battles that will improve the lives of working people.