Unions fight airline plan to enter U.S. on the cheap

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HOUSTON (PAI) - Just call it airborne theft of flight attendants' and pilots' jobs and pay.

In a scenario U.S. seafarers are familiar with, Norwegian Air International wants to become a "flag of convenience" air carrier into the U.S., by getting a flight certificate from Ireland, hiring flight crews from Thailand and covering them with Singapore's labor laws, or lack thereof -- all at rock-bottom rates that would drive other carriers out of business and other airline workers out of jobs.

"Flag of convenience" cargo ships, chartered in nations such as Panama, underpay - or don't pay - their crews, work them under impossible and unsafe conditions and, when they run out of money, often abandon the crews in U.S. ports.

Their cheapness also drove most of the maritime trade out of U.S. flagging, because the firms don't want to meet U.S. labor laws, wage laws, worker comp laws and safety and health laws. Only two percent of the cargo carriers docking at U.S. ports are U.S.-flagged, data shows. Many of those U.S. carriers, however, are unionized.

Norwegian wants to fly on the cheap and pay on the cheap in the U.S.  Its website right now advertises 1-way fares from London's Gatwick Airport to almost anywhere in Europe for between 30 and 40 British pounds, or less than $75. The site says Norwegian wants to fly to Florida, New York City and Oakland.

But to be an "airline of convenience," Norwegian needs U.S. government permission to land here, and that's where the AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department comes in.

TTD and its member unions are lobbying the Federal Aviation Administration to deny U.S. landing rights to Norwegian Air, department President Ed Wytkind said in an interview during the AFL-CIO Executive Council meeting in February in Houston. The lobbying began more than six months ago.

And earlier in February, TTD and other airline and transportation unions in the U.S. and Europe met in Oslo, Norway's capital, to carry the campaign to the base of the rogue airline, and to formulate united strategy to stop it.

"We're focused like a laser beam on its violations of existing law and agreements" including an Open Skies pact between the U.S. and the European Union, he adds.  If the Obama administration and the European Union OK Norwegian's scheme, "This could be a really significant tipping point" in the airline industry, he says. 

Approval of Norwegian's application "would open the floodgates for them to scour the globe for the cheapest labor and the most favorable laws."  Other carriers would have to match Norwegian, and workers would suffer as a result.

TTD has picked up three heavyweight allies: The three big U.S. airlines, United, Delta and American.  "The last thing Delta wants to do is pay its flight attendants $500 a month.  That'll distort the marketplace," Wytkind says.  The three air carriers have also filed formal protests against Norwegian's application to enter the U.S.

The fight over Norwegian also has larger implications for U.S. workers, because the Democratic Obama administration is negotiating a so-called "free trade" treaty with the European Union, one of five such pending pacts.  

A federal law to implement the U.S.-EU pact is possible only if Congress gives President Barack Obama fast-track trade promotion authority, with virtually no safeguards for worker rights.  Fast-track would bar congressional changes, limit debate and require only one up-or-down vote in each house.  Labor strongly opposes it.

The EU in general has much stronger worker rights than the U.S., "and we very vigorously fought for human rights and labor standards in" the Open Skies pact "and against letting firms use the benefits of that agreement to erode labor standards on both sides of the Atlantic," Wytkind explains.

"This Norwegian Air case clearly does," and thus is a warning shot about EU enforcement -- or non-enforcement -- of its own labor standards, he warns.

Photo: Norwegian Air

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