Airline employees face extortion

Talking with airline employees in America can be an unsettling experience right now. They are being pushed for salary and work-rule concessions under threat of losing their jobs.

At least one major company, American Airlines, is going a lot further. While they use words like “teamwork” and “equality of sacrifice” to get their employees to take concessions, they are also lobbying Congress to weaken time-honored union laws under the Railway Labor Act, which has been in effect since May 20, 1926!

One American pilot said, “Why are they spending $16 million in Washington to lobby against the Railway Act, and still telling us ‘you have to help the company stay afloat’?”

On Feb. 4, the company asked their employees for “permanent cost savings” of $1.8 billion dollars. Their press releases did not mention their simultaneous efforts to weaken the Railway Act and dilute airline employees’ right to strike. Work rules, wages and benefits would be cut by management’s proposals. Top management has made it clear in the press that they will go bankrupt if they do not get full cooperation from their employees.

Not all of American’s workforce belongs to the Allied Pilots Association (APA), the Transport Workers Union (TWU) or the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA). Both the Teamsters and the Communications Workers have recently attempted to organize more employees, but were unable to overcome management’s hard resistance. Both the pilots and the flight attendants broke away long ago from larger, national unions that were affiliated with the AFL-CIO.

They may stand virtually alone against management today, but both groups have gone through militant job actions in their recent contract negotiations. The TWU ground crew members are also used to militant struggles for union contracts. Additionally, they have been among the first to extend help to their fellow unionists of the AFL-CIO at the local, state and national levels.

Airline employees are fairly new to the demands for concessions that managers in other industries, such as steel and auto, have been making for decades. Before the current downturn, they worked in an industry that grew tremendously and competed mostly on the basis of who could offer the most amenities to air passengers. Nevertheless, union leaders are demanding full disclosure of the company’s resources and management’s plans for handling the crisis before they agree to concessions.

The Flight Attendants President John Ward said, “APFA has asked American to substantiate the need for the $340 million in cost savings they are seeking from flight attendants. At our request, management has agreed to meet with the unions on Friday, Feb. 7, 2003, in order to explain how management has arrived at the $1.8 billion figure and to further outline their plans to return the company to profitability. The APFA Board of Directors and members of the APFA Negotiating Committee will meet with our analyst and advisors in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 11-12 to review an analysis of the company’s finances and discuss the company’s request.”

Workers at United, USAir, and most other airlines are undergoing the same duress being suffered by American Airline employees.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org