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Workers Vanguard No. 957

23 April 2010

Union Organizing Victory at Continental Airlines

Labor scored a victory on February 12, when it was announced that the nearly 8,000 Continental Airlines fleet service workers had voted to join the Teamsters, capping a 13-year organizing campaign that involved two other unions and five previous representation elections. These workers, mainly ramp and cargo agents who perform difficult, physically demanding labor for as little as $10 per hour, had been one of the largest non-union work groups in the airline industry. After almost a decade of mass layoffs, wage and benefit cuts and onerous work-rule changes, they again braved the company’s wrath to vote for the union, this time with success.

But the election victory is only a first step. Winning a contract is far from automatic. Over the years, in order to head off the unionization of the fleet service workers, the company did everything from issuing empty promises and holding mandatory anti-union workplace meetings to cultivating a network of spies and finks and selectively disciplining union activists. The same tactics will continue to be used against union supporters in order to intimidate the workforce and stonewall on contract negotiations. It is crucial for the Teamsters—and the other unions at Continental—to defend the new members.

This defense must go hand in hand with the fight against racist discrimination. At Continental, where fleet service workers are heavily black and Latino in many stations, it was not uncommon for anonymous propaganda retailing vicious slanders against the union and its supporters, at times laced with racist appeals, to be circulated throughout the workplace. Just before voting began in January, workers had to protest flyers smearing organizers as “pimps.” Meanwhile, hangman’s nooses recently turned up in the operations area of Newark airport, a union stronghold. The lynch rope embodies a program of white supremacy and violence against black people. The union must combat such provocations if it is to consolidate itself.

The success at Continental, however fragile, stands out against the wave of setbacks labor has suffered for many years, which has been made all the worse by the current sharp economic downturn. It is a testament to the determination and sacrifice of hundreds of volunteer organizers, who struggled together for years against lies and intimidation by the company. In addition to wanting to improve their lot, many were spurred on by chronic abuse from management and derision toward their “unskilled” labor, others by blatant favoritism on the job. By all accounts, the decisive factor in this election was the organizers’ efforts in traveling throughout the Continental system to unite workers at outlying stations behind the union.

Even as Continental was turning the screws on its fleet service workers, the carrier was able to keep them from organizing for so long in no small part because the leadership of the unions—whether the Teamsters, the International Association of Machinists (IAM) or the Transport Workers Union (TWU)—steered clear of anything smacking of class struggle. One missed opportunity occurred in 2005, when the IAM-represented flight attendants at Continental voted to reject concessions, putting in jeopardy the company’s goal of wresting major givebacks from all its union workers. At the time, the Machinists were attempting to organize the fleet service workers, but there was no move to link the two causes. Instead, the IAM tops foisted a new concessionary deal on the flight attendants while allowing the organizing campaign to flounder.

Divisions along craft lines and between workers at different carriers, regional affiliates and “third party” subcontractors sap the strength of the many unions in the airline industry. Mergers, such as that of Delta and Northwest and the possible Continental-United combination, have given the bosses another opening to pit workers against each other in order to impose layoffs and cutbacks. Nonetheless, workers in the industry have enormous potential power, as air transport of both passengers and cargo is vital to a modern industrial economy. What is needed is a single industry-wide union that encompasses everyone from baggage handlers to pilots.

The disastrous consequences of this atomization were laid bare in the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA) strike at Northwest Airlines in 2005. Not only did the leaders of the other unions refuse to shut down Northwest in solidarity with the AMFA union, but IAM officials criminally engaged in open strikebreaking under the pretext that the AMFA craft union had carried out raiding operations against the IAM. The strike went down to a bitter defeat, and all airline workers are now worse off.

It should hardly be news to union “leaders” that when unions scab on each other, labor loses. This was seen clearly when the PATCO air traffic controllers union was smashed in 1981 by Republican president Ronald Reagan, implementing plans drawn up by the Democratic Carter administration. Responsibility for the defeat lay squarely with the leaders of the IAM, Teamsters and other unions who refused to honor the picket lines and shut down the airports. The smashing of PATCO laid the groundwork for a quarter-century of givebacks and union-busting from which labor has yet to recover.

For a Class-Struggle Leadership of the Unions!

At Continental, the Teamsters also represent the mechanics, whose contract became amendable on the first day of 2009, shortly before the union kicked off its bid to organize the fleet service workers. During this time, the union tops sought to bring out both work groups together only for a few rallies outside Continental’s hubs in Houston, Newark and Cleveland. In speeches at these rallies, Teamsters president James Hoffa praised the virtues of supposed “allies” in the capitalist Democratic Party, outlining a legalistic response to the company’s anti-union dirty tricks. It is the reliance on the political agents and institutions of the class enemy—the calling card of the pro-capitalist labor bureaucracy as a whole—that has hastened the decline in union power.

An earlier TWU organizing rally for the Continental fleet service workers in Newark featured one local Democratic Party politician after another seeking votes in the 2008 elections. The union tops spent a whopping $450 million of union members’ dues money on the 2008 bourgeois elections. Upon coming to power, Barack Obama, a Wall Street Democrat, imposed harsh austerity measures on unions, beginning with the United Auto Workers. In 1978, Jimmy Carter pushed through the deregulation of the airline industry, which opened a new round in the carriers’ war on labor. Democrat Bill Clinton would later invoke the Railway Labor Act (RLA) 14 times to ban potential rail and airline strikes. Labor must break with the Democratic Party!

During the campaign at Continental, the Teamsters and 30 other unions began lobbying for a rule change proposed by the Obama appointees on the National Mediation Board (NMB) that would bring the union certification procedures for rail and airline workers in line with those in other industries. To win union recognition by NMB precedent today, the majority of an entire work group has to favor unionization, with absent ballots automatically counted as “no” votes; the change would make it a majority of those voting. We would support such a change, as companies like Continental and Delta pad their employee rosters to rig the vote.

But the union tops’ declaration that this would “level the playing field” is a lie. The reality is that the NMB, whatever its composition, is a capitalist government agency set up to impose “class peace” and bind the unions to the bourgeois order. Under government boards like the RLA, the deck will always be stacked in favor of the bosses. If the certification rules change, so will their anti-union tactics. The unions were built through hard class struggle in defiance of labor laws and, no less today, that is what is decisive. By accepting the framework of the RLA, the union bureaucrats are reduced to tinkering with the bosses’ rules in a losing game.

Saddled with a leadership wedded to the rule of capital, airline workers have taken it on the chin for years. Amid the wave of airline bankruptcies that followed the 11 September 2001 attacks, the bosses wrung billions in wage and benefit concessions from the unions and drastically chopped their employment levels. Continental first pioneered this form of union-busting back in 1983, when then-honcho Frank Lorenzo filed for Chapter 11 in order to tear up union contracts, shed jobs and slash pay. The bloodletting has continued to this day, as the airline bosses cite “low cost” competition, fuel prices and now the faltering economy to make the workers pay for the vicissitudes of capitalism.

Meanwhile, increasing numbers of ground workers, from cleaners and baggage handlers to aircraft mechanics, are employees of largely non-union “third-party” subcontractors, and many domestic routes are now flown by regional affiliates, where workers typically earn far less. At the outset of the organizing campaign, there were 15,000 fleet service workers at Continental. After the union won certification, Continental announced plans to outsource 150 ramp jobs at seven stations serviced by its regional partners. The increasing use of subcontractors poses a broader task for the airline unions: organizing the unorganized throughout the industry, whether at the carriers or subcontractors, and winning equal pay for equal work, no matter the employer. But rather than fighting to organize the workers at the “third party” outfits, the union bureaucrats denounce these workers as “scabs.”

At a 2008 national summit on outsourcing, jointly sponsored by the Teamsters and the “Business Travel Coalition,” union leaders representing airline mechanics urged government officials to strengthen “war on terror” security measures at third-party repair stations. A taste of what this would mean in practice was shown by the government’s 2005 anti-immigrant raid on the non-union TIMCO maintenance facility in Greensboro, North Carolina, during which 27 mechanics were arrested and later deported. As well, the bureaucrats pushed increased U.S. government inspections and protectionist legislation directed at the overseas shops. It is in the vital interest of the labor movement to fight for full citizenship rights for all immigrants.

Few industries are as conducive to coordinating joint struggle as air transport. But in his speeches to Continental workers, Hoffa promoted “save American jobs” chauvinism in support of a Congressional moratorium on foreign outsourcing. Whether by blaming mechanics abroad for jobs lost or railing against Mexican truckers, Hoffa & Co. poison the perspective of international labor solidarity. With the European flag carriers gunning for their unions, strikes have recently broken out in Britain, Germany and Italy. In March, the Teamsters and TWU made headlines for meeting with an official of the union representing British Airways flight attendants, shortly before they went on strike. But no labor action was taken in the U.S. to back up the strikers; the Teamsters did not mobilize its ground workers to refuse to work the arriving scab aircraft.

Despite the hard times, there are indications that airline workers are ready to test the waters. Those who remain at the major carriers are still heavily unionized and many are eager to restore what was lost over the last decade. At American Airlines, where nine union contracts are in mediation, the flight attendants and fleet service workers filed with the NMB for a release from talks, the first step in a long process to a potential strike under the RLA. As is typically the case, the request was denied. Other carriers, among them Continental, United, US Airways and Southwest, have also stalled for years on reaching agreements with their unions. What is necessary is for the unions to fight together in a common front against the bosses and their government.

Airline unions embody a strategic concentration of integrated union power in the “open shop” South, where a massive organizing drive is key for labor to regain its strength. In fact, with the victory at Houston-based Continental, the next major arena for organizing at the airlines is Atlanta-based Delta on the heels of its merger with Northwest. A large number of the non-union subcontractors in the industry are also headquartered in the South, where “right to work” laws have historically been enforced by racist terror. To organize the South will require a labor leadership that actively champions black rights and fights in the interests of all the oppressed.

The way forward is the forging of a class-struggle leadership committed to mobilizing union power independently of and in opposition to the capitalist politicians and government boards. It was just such a leadership, composed of Trotskyists and their sympathizers, that helped build the Teamsters into a powerful union. In 1934, these militants set out to organize every truck driver and warehouse worker industry-wide in Minneapolis. First to win union recognition and then a contract, the city’s proletariat and its allies were mobilized in mass strike action involving pitched battles with scabs, cops and the National Guard. In assessing the strikes, James P. Cannon, a founder and leader of American Trotskyism, noted:

“The modern labor movement must be politically directed because it is confronted by the government at every turn. Our people were prepared for that since they were political people, inspired by political conceptions....

“They prepared everything from the point of view of class war. They knew that power, not diplomacy, would decide the issue. Bluffs don’t work in fundamental things, only in incidental ones. In such things as the conflict of class interests one must be prepared to fight.”

The History of American Trotskyism (1944)

The airline industry under capitalism is a paradigm of irrationality. The current air traffic control system is based on World War II-era radar technology. Many pilots are paid poverty-level wages, with some even living off food stamps. Critical maintenance inspections are routinely put off by the bosses, courting death and disaster. The contradiction between the inherently international character of the industry and how it is operated by nationally-based rival carriers is a crystalline example of the generalized anarchy of capitalist production for profit. To end this capitalist chaos requires a collectivized economy with centralized planning, which will come about only through socialist revolution. What’s needed is to build a workers party that, standing at the head of the exploited and oppressed, fights for the expropriation of the capitalist class and the establishment of a workers government.


Workers Vanguard No. 957

WV 957

23 April 2010


Organize Non-Union Mines!

Industrial Murder in West Virginia


Union Organizing Victory at Continental Airlines


U.S. Atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan: Imperialist S.O.P.


The Liberating Goals of Communism

(Quote of the Week)


British Reformists in Action

When Militant Ran Liverpool

Down With Executive Offices of the Capitalist State!


For Black Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!

The Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement

Break with the Democrats!

For a Revolutionary Workers Party!

Part Two