The attack of September 11 will spread its effects far and wide, but no group of workers are
seeing their jobs change to the degree of those in the aviation industry.
Roughly 140,000 will be laid off. Those who are fortunate enough to still have
jobs after the new year, are seeing increased pressure from the airlines to
accept concessions in wages, benefits, and work rules. The most visible change
to the public is the increased security, which many airline workers welcome, but
see as inadequate or ineffective, and which adds to airline workers’ unpaid time
The major U.S. airlines have announced layoffs of many tens of thousands over the next couple
months. US Airways, the smallest of the major airlines is sending pink slips to
11,000 workers, while American and United, the two largest are each getting rid
of 20,000 employees. This is in spite of the $15 billion in cash and loan
guarantees from the U.S. government that contained no requirements to be used
for jobs. If the airlines reduce trips and send their workforce home and, at the
same time, receive billions in free cash, then it can only be going to
shareholders. Not since the bailout of Chrysler in the early 1980s has there
been such a visible wholesale transfer of wealth from taxpayers to business,
and, like the Chrysler bailout in which the government required the United Auto
Workers to accept major concessions, leading to a long wave of concessionary
bargaining by U.S. unions, this one contains no requirement that the money be
used to maintain good jobs, wages, benefits, and conditions.
Union members accepted concessions with the faith that companies would use the money to save
jobs, but that trust was violated. Chrysler, the other automakers (which also
got concessions from the UAW), steel, meatpacking, trucking or the many other
industries received give-backs from unionists, but slashed union jobs. Jane
Slaughter details in Concessions and How to Beat Them that concessions do
not save jobs. Slaughter also writes prophetically after the wave of
concessionary union bargaining in the 1980s, “The precedent has been set: the
minute there is the slightest downturn in the economy or when any individual
employer begins to get into trouble, that will be the signal for a renewed
assault on workers’ pocketbooks, this time including medical and other
benefits.” This is precisely what the airlines are now doing.
There are other possibilities for the handling of a government bailout besides a check without
strings. In 1976, Penn Central Railroad and six other ailing railroad companies
were bailed out and actually nationalized. Controlling share of the resulting
Consolidated Rail Corp, or Conrail, was held by the U.S. government. The U.S.
government could now own $5 billion worth of stock in U.S. Airlines, which at
the current depressed stock prices is a significant number of shares. Conrail is
not a perfect model of course. After pumping $7 billion into Conrail and
returning it to profitability, in 1987, the government under then President
Ronald Reagan sold it off for $1.9 billion, which like the current situation,
was a give-away of public resources to private capital.
A few years ago, ,the rate of this decline slowed and actually has made a small improvement due in
part to unions recognizing they had to fight if they were to survive at all.
This was a major change for most AFL-CIO unions and it made industry leaders
nervous. The last thing they want to see is an active working class.
Before September 11, economists noted that the world economy was slipping. However, slipping
isn’t the right word, because it suggests there is something inevitable or
natural about it. Economic downturns are not like rain. They come because of
specific decisions of the capitalist class to reduce investment, cut production,
and slash employment.
This recession had hit the airline industry, which saw profits decline as both business
travelers and individuals were flying less. Months before September 11, airlines
began asking employee groups for concessions. It is important to note that the
reason they had to ask at all is that the airline industry is at least 80
percent unionized, probably the most heavily organized industry in the U.S.
Unions in the airline industry gave concessions throughout the 1980s and still
watched companies go under. Thousands and thousands of their colleagues lost
jobs at Pan Am, Eastern, Braniff, and others, in spite of concessions. In the
mid to late 1990s, airline unions began fighting to regain some of the lost
ground. The companies were making large profits and workers figured it was
payback time. Management of course didn’t feel that way, but unions made
significant gains and some got not only significant improvements in wages and
retirement, but some also achieved strong job protection clauses that prohibited
layoffs except under certain conditions.
These contracts were signed during a boom economy, and as soon as it began to slump, management
wanted concessions. They said employees should work faster, increase their
workload, increase their health insurance contribution and, in some cases,
actually lose pay as well. Fortunately, the unions held strong and, with few
exceptions, were not willing to consider contract amendments as they had in the
1980s. Many problems are not sufficiently addressed in contracts though. For
example, some airlines are shifting from large planes to smaller regional jets.
For flight crews, this means that pilot groups will get an overall cut in pay
because their pay is based on the size of the plane. In addition the airlines
will use fewer flight attendants on the smaller craft.
In the aftermath of September 11, airline management has seized an opportunity. Previously,
important figures in both political parties were publicly critical of the
industry and there was talk of enacting regulations if airlines didn’t fix the
problems. But after September 11, when airlines were grounded for days, there
was sudden unanimity in Washington that the shareholders of airlines deserved to
be saved from their fate. The change was likely facilitated by the fact that one
of the leading lobbyists for the airline industry is Linda Daschle, wife of
Senate majority leader Tom Daschle. In addition, while airline executives have
publicly volunteered to reduce or refuse their salaries, they haven’t bothered
to note that their salaries are only a fraction of their actual income, which
comes more from bonuses and stock.
The industry is using the disaster to make cuts it could not have gotten away with before. The
unions are timid, presumably for fear that standing up now would bring down the
ire of the federal government. This is probably a safe assumption, but, unlike
the air traffic controllers of 1981 who were fired by President Reagan, airline
employees are private employees. While the president can legally order workers
into “cooling off periods” if the unions were organized in an industrial fashion
instead of into crafts, the government would be powerless to stop them.
Airline workers are currently divided into separate unions for pilots, flight attendants,
mechanics, cleaners, reservations clerks, ticket seller, gate agents, baggage
handlers, plus possible separate unions for the private suppliers like caterers,
fuelers, etc. Furthermore, across the industry, there can be several different
unions for one category of workers. For example, there are four significant
unions for flight attendants in the U.S. While there is some communication
between the different unions within and between companies, there is little or no
discussion of coordinated bargaining, much less collective action.
If there were a single union or even strong cooperation between the unions in something besides
lobbying, they would be able to stop these layoffs immediately. A united call
across the industry to shut it down if there were a single layoff would stop
American, United, Continental, Delta, Northwest, US Airways, and the others in
their tracks. If there were a true commitment to solidarity, then if the unions
determined that there actually was less work than the industry could support,
then they would spread the work around evenly, assuring that no one lost their
job, their health benefits, and their paycheck.
Instead the unions are filing grievances, pleading with the company to follow the contract,
if they have language preventing layoffs or begging the company to offer a
pittance of severance pay to those laid off if they don’t. Either stance accepts
the companies’ right to set the terms of employment, to decide how many people
they will hire, and when they will be let go. There is no reason in an industry
that is so heavily organized to ask for anything. The unions have the strength
to dictate terms, if they would only choose to use it.
If the unions in the airline industry were to stand together and issue a joint statement that
there would be no layoffs and no concessions and back it up by creating teams to
educate the members about the struggle, simultaneously preparing for
intermittent strikes that have brought airline management down every time they
have been used, then airline workers would win not only their own battle, but
would also demonstrate to workers everywhere what is possible through collective
Joshua Freeze is IWW Executive Board Chair and a member of the Association of Flight
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