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Workers Vanguard No. 1002

11 May 2012

For Class-Struggle Leadership of the Unions!

American Airlines: Bankruptcy as Union Busting

When AMR, the parent company of American Airlines, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in November, management made no bones about it: the step was a declaration of war on the 88,000 employees at the carrier and its regional subsidiary, American Eagle. At the time, American, the third-largest domestic air carrier, was sitting on over $4 billion in cash and investments. This was money the company had stolen from its workers by severely underfunding pensions and shoving massive concessions down their throats during the post-September 11 crisis in the industry. But now the carrier wants more, turning to the bankruptcy court to help cut 13,000 jobs, replace all pensions with 401(k)s, end retiree health care benefits and impose other “sacrifices,” altogether totaling $1.25 billion annually.

From major airlines like Delta, United and US Airways to steel and auto corporations, the bosses have wielded bankruptcy as a bludgeon against the unions. In fulfilling their role in protecting the property and profits of the capitalists, the courts routinely void union contracts whenever companies in Chapter 11 make the request. Now the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in lower Manhattan is hearing AMR’s motion to toss out the contracts covering the 26,000 ground workers in the Transport Workers Union (TWU) as well as the members of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA) and the Allied Pilots Association (APA).

AMR went this route after it was unable to wrest even further concessions from union members as contract negotiations dragged out for years. In 2010, maintenance workers rejected by a two-to-one margin a tentative agreement that packaged benefit and work-rule givebacks with a 6 percent wage increase and a signing bonus. When presented last October with a benefit-slashing deal, fleet service workers formed a “Vote No Coalition,” although the company’s Chapter 11 filing ensured that there would be no vote. Just before the bankruptcy declaration, blowback from pilots convinced APA officials not to put the company’s latest proposal up to a vote. Recently, workers have gathered to protest the court proceedings in NYC and picketed outside airport terminals serviced by American Airlines across the country.

But the union leaderships are more interested in making the carrier profitable than engaging in a fight to defend the gains their members won in past struggles. They eagerly took up the Justice Department’s offer to take seats on the creditors committee, which represents those owed money by AMR—namely, the banks and the Boeing aircraft manufacturer. From this perch, the main stratagem of officials representing the three unions has been to support US Airways in its bid to take over American.

In kicking off a lobbying campaign for the merger, the TWU, APA and APFA issued a joint April 20 press release titled “Union Leaders Pursue Best Path to Restore American Airlines to Preeminence.” The simple truth is that the “preeminence” of any capitalist enterprise flows from maximizing profits by gouging its employees for all they’re worth. The union bureaucrats are trumpeting backroom deals reached with US Airways that would supposedly protect some of their members’ jobs if the airlines merge. In exchange for empty promises from a gang of bosses who might rob them a little less, the union misleaders at American did an end run around US Airways workers, who were themselves shafted by the bankruptcy court eight years ago and are today locked in bitter contract negotiations. Airline mergers have repeatedly been carried out on the backs of the combined workforce. When US Airways and America West joined forces in 2005, the result was marked in lost jobs and service cuts, while workers from the two carriers were set against each other.

Hedging their bets, the TWU tops acceded to terms of surrender with American, which wants to wring concessions from one of its unions in order to strengthen its hand against the other two. With voting on this offer set to begin on May 10, the backs of TWU members are up against the wall, especially since their leaders have sworn off the possibility of strike action if and when the court tears up the existing contracts. In March, the same TWU bureaucrats declared “victory” when the bosses took up their suggestion to stop paying into pension plans. The union tops said this was preferable to turning over the funds to the government, which would likely pay pennies on the dollar. The end result, though, is the same: retirement security has been severely eroded. Even before bankruptcy, TWU leaders had agreed to put new hires on 401(k) plans, which shifts the burden for providing retirement funds onto individual workers.

Over the last decade, airline workers one after another have been hit with layoffs, wage slashing and pension-stealing. It will take determined struggle to stop the massacre of workers’ livelihoods. This path will not be easy. The capitalists have their state power, as seen in laws like the Railway Labor Act (RLA)—which puts enormous legal obstacles in the way of airline and rail strikes—and the courts and cops that enforce such laws. But the airline industry is still 60 percent unionized, and its workers have a lot of potential clout based on their ability to shut down the airports. Air transport is vital to a modern industrial economy, moving people, mail and highly time-sensitive cargo for businesses. In fact, the dollar value of exports moving through JFK airport is greater than that shipped from the Los Angeles and New York/New Jersey ports combined.

But the workers’ power is held in check by the pro-capitalist union bureaucrats, who hide behind the RLA and court rulings to head off labor struggle and turn their backs on those who do walk off the job. In the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association strike at Northwest Airlines in 2005, leaders of other unions refused to shut down Northwest in solidarity, while officials from the IAM machinists union engaged in open strikebreaking.

Airline workers cannot effectively defend their livelihoods without overcoming the atomization of the workforce along craft and union lines and the divisions between workers at different carriers, regional affiliates and “third party” subcontractors. The way forward lies in joint labor struggle to defend hard-won gains and organize workers at non-union facilities, laying the basis for a single industry-wide union uniting everyone from cleaners to pilots. In the airline industry and elsewhere, the unions will be revitalized only through class battles against the capitalist exploiters. Such struggles will pose the need for a new labor leadership based on the understanding that the working class and the capitalist class have no common interests.

The Dead End of “Partnership Agreements”

In 2003, under the cloud of threatened bankruptcy, the union leaders at American agreed to cuts that slashed wages by up to one-third. Along with the concessions, they entered into “partnership agreements” with the bosses. Workers soon discovered how one-sided the “pull together, win together” partnership was, as top executives voted themselves million-dollar bonuses and a special trust fund to guarantee their own very generous pensions. Under pressure from outraged union members, the APFA and APA leaders pulled out of the arrangement, even as they continued to pursue the “partnership” by other means.

The TWU tops, though, clung to these agreements, claiming that such cooperation has kept aircraft repair work in-house. Exhibit number one for them is the Tulsa, Oklahoma, maintenance base, the largest in the world. The 6,000 union mechanics in Tulsa were made to swallow sizable cuts in salary, benefits and vacation in exchange for the pretense of input in running the operation. When management ordered its union “partners” to halve the time to complete major aircraft overhauls, the TWU helped provide the blueprint. Massive speedup was implemented in return for promises that no jobs would be lost as a result of increased efficiency.

The “groundbreaking business relationship” so reduced work-rule and compensation standards that American Airlines was able by the end of 2006 to win service contracts from 50 other companies, including some operating out of South America. With all the extra work pouring in, union officials widely touted this “insourcing” as the best strategy to save jobs. In the end, it did just the opposite.

The deepgoing concessions behind this arrangement are symptomatic of a race to the bottom between unionized maintenance shops and non-union “third party” subcontractors. While AMR mechanics were run ragged for far less wages, they were trained to view themselves as part of the company team, sapping the fighting strength of the union. Now management is dropping the ax. Before it emerges from bankruptcy, American plans to lay off 2,100 mechanics in Tulsa and to shrink its system-wide maintenance workforce by one-third to compete with the outsourcing of its rivals. It could not be clearer that defense of unionized workers requires a hard fight to organize the unorganized, whether at the carriers or subcontractors, in order to raise standards across the board.

In anticipation of the imminent cutbacks, TWU Local 514 in Tulsa jumped into a coalition involving the Chamber of Commerce, City Hall and the Oklahoma governor, among others. Joining hands with these viciously anti-union forces, Local 514 president Sam Cirri intoned, “It’s critical that our elected officials and community leaders fight to keep these jobs local, instead of allowing the work to be reduced or outsourced overseas.” This “coalition” is a recipe for disaster for AMR workers. The businesses represented by the Chamber of Commerce have one overriding interest: their own profits, which are created through the blood and sweat of workers. Providing an assist are the capitalist politicians in the Democratic and Republican parties.

With their chauvinist protectionism and reliance on bourgeois politicians, especially the Democrats, the union bureaucrats have kept the labor movement in retreat. However much the Democrats are pitched as “friends of labor,” they represent the class enemy, which is evident whenever workers brandish their strike weapon. A 1997 pilots strike at American Airlines was ended after 24 minutes when Democrat Bill Clinton invoked the RLA against airline workers for the first time since 1966. He banned a total of 14 strikes in this manner.

Barack Obama, who received the endorsement of the TWU, APFA and most other unions in 2008, has time and again stuck the knife in labor. This began with the bailout of the auto bosses that gutted the jobs, wages and benefits of the union workforce, with the collusion of the United Auto Workers officialdom, which signed a no-strike pledge. Obama then turned his fire on teachers, followed by a wage freeze on federal employees. Last October, Obama used the RLA to spike a potential strike of thousands of freight rail workers. Earlier this year, he signed a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization bill with provisions modifying the RLA to make it more difficult for airline and railroad workers to unionize and easier for the bosses to decertify existing unions.

“Partnership” with the bosses and their politicians sets American Airlines workers against their class brothers and sisters throughout the industry, including overseas. The offensive against airline workers is hardly limited to the U.S. Last year, the Australian airliner Qantas grounded its entire fleet in order to press for union concessions, while 2,600 workers were locked out by Philippine Airlines. British Airways and Japan Airlines have eliminated thousands of jobs. At home, industry subcontractors have taken it to the unions as well. One such company, Aviation Safeguards at Los Angeles International Airport, unilaterally terminated its contract with the SEIU service workers union in January and withdrew health care benefits.

Particularly in an industry whose daily operations are international in scope, the solidarity of unionized labor in other countries can be a crucial axis of struggle against the red-white-and-blue union-busters in the U.S. Like all major carriers, American Airlines employs workers around the world. But the TWU, APA and APFA bureaucrats undermine labor solidarity by imbibing flag-waving American patriotism, evident in official placards at union protests and an online petition expressing support for “American jobs at American Airlines.”

Objections to maintenance outsourcing from union officials are shot through with the same chauvinist and protectionist poison. Typical is TWU International president James Little, who rants against “less secure poorly regulated maintenance facilities in third world countries.” The fixation on security is a salute to the reactionary “war on terror,” under which workers have been victimized through increased surveillance, background checks and other measures. The leaders of the TWU, IAM, Teamsters, etc. want to extend this crackdown to all maintenance facilities in the U.S. and overseas. Giving a taste of what that would mean, a 2005 federal raid on the non-union TIMCO aircraft maintenance facility in Greensboro, North Carolina, ended in the arrest and deportation of 27 immigrant workers.

Little & Co. present the very real safety concerns at repair stations as a matter of “poor regulation,” calling for increased U.S. government safety inspections and protectionist legislation. As agencies of the capitalist class, the FAA and related government bodies are complicit in covering up the U.S. airline bosses’ brazen disregard for safety. Despite an FAA directive and inspections, American Airlines management got away with not arranging a check of the wiring in its fleet of MD-80s for five years after Boeing flagged possible problems. Only after revelations that Southwest Airlines had for years been flying uninspected planes, many with structural damage, did American ground the aircraft to have the necessary work done, in April 2008.

Both workers and passengers have suffered from cost-cutting by the airlines. Travelers are packed like sardines into aircraft stripped of amenities, while the companies roll the dice with their lives by compromising on safety. Meanwhile, the workers handling their luggage, the flight attendants serving them, the mechanics making the planes airworthy and the pilots managing the cockpit are overworked and underpaid. Matters are made worse with workers compelled to pick up extra hours or a second job to make ends meet. Now, even with a couple dozen accidents over the past two decades in the U.S. linked to pilot fatigue, American wants its pilots to fly more hours, a disaster in the making. By organizing non-union shops and fighting for union-run training and union safety committees, the airline unions would stand up for workers on the job and could win a lot of support from the public.

Break with the Democrats!

It took hard struggle, at crucial times transcending craft and racial divisions, for airline workers to make substantial gains in wages and working conditions in the period following World War II, when the industry was undergoing great expansion. Women flight attendants got union protections that gave them a measure of respect on the job, propelling many to become leading union fighters. The TWU gained its initial foothold in the industry at Pan Am in Miami after black porters and cleaners brought white mechanics into the union in 1945. In short order, the TWU established itself as the heart of the labor movement in Florida, the first “right to work” state, and a powerful force in breaking down Jim Crow norms, including by establishing a program to train black workers in semi-skilled trades.

Beginning a series of job actions, 2,000 Miami Pan Am workers—white mechanics, unskilled workers and black porters—conducted a sitdown strike in late 1945. Although TWU head Mike Quill branded the strike “illegal” and ordered strikers back to work, it continued until workers unanimously agreed on a settlement. The TWU’s workplace activism and political stands made it a lightning rod for death threats from the Ku Klux Klan, spurring efforts by the union to defend its members and their families. To this day, the fighting unity of black and white as well as Latino workers is key to labor organizing, especially in the South where non-union airlines such as Delta are based.

However, even in its formative years, the union was hamstrung with a leadership loyal to the Democratic Party and the capitalist order. Mike Quill was himself a longtime fixture in the Democrats’ “New Deal coalition” in New York City, including in the 1930s when he was a supporter of the reformist Communist Party (CP). Following the outbreak of the anti-Soviet Cold War in the aftermath of World War II, Quill spearheaded a red purge of the TWU, breaking with his former CP allies. (For more on this subject, see “New York City: Transit Workers Under the Gun,” WV No. 1001, 27 April.)

It was Democrats like Senator Ted Kennedy and President Jimmy Carter who would unleash the war on airline unions by pushing through deregulation in 1978. The same year, Carter’s FAA began to hammer out a strike-breaking plan in advance of the 1981 contract negotiations with the PATCO air traffic controllers. When the 13,000 PATCO members went on strike in August 1981 in defiance of the law, Republican Ronald Reagan fired them all and hauled PATCO leaders off to jail in shackles. Despite the extended drop in air traffic, the airline bosses stood by the president. The chairman of American Airlines thanked Reagan for “reestablishing respect for law and controlling inflation” and thereby creating “a business environment in which the temporary losses we suffer now can be more than fully recouped.”

The destruction of PATCO was not preordained. There was plenty of sentiment to beat back the union-busters, as seen in a half-million-strong “Solidarity Day” labor demonstration in Washington, D.C., that September. But from the outset of the strike, the pro-capitalist labor officialdom refused to call out the airline unions—the IAM mechanics, the ALPA pilots, the Teamsters who fuelled the planes and others—to strike in solidarity with PATCO, instead pushing impotent consumer boycotts.

The smashing of the PATCO strike was a watershed in what has been a decades-long drive by the capitalist rulers to turn back the clock on the entire labor movement. These attacks have been intensified in the ongoing, grinding economic crisis, during which capitalists in the U.S. and elsewhere have taken the ax to pensions and jobs in their onslaught against public employees and other workers.

The destructive irrationality of capitalism is also evident in the daily workings of the airline industry, with its wild swings that follow the vicissitudes of the price of oil and the health of the economy as a whole. The contradiction between the inherently international character of the industry on one hand and its operation by nationally based rival carriers on the other is a prime example of the generalized anarchy of capitalist production for profit. There will be no end to such chaos short of socialist revolutions that establish a collectivized economy with centralized planning on a world scale. The prerequisite to achieving this goal is the building of revolutionary workers parties that can lead the fight to shatter the capitalist order. In the U.S., that task requires breaking the political ties binding the bulk of the working class, blacks and other minorities to the Democratic Party. For a workers party that fights for a workers government!


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