Workers Vanguard No. 888

16 March 2007


Abuses Workers, Screws Customers

Labor: Organize JetBlue!

Valentine’s Day turned into a Halloween horror for hundreds of JetBlue customers, with passengers on nine aircraft forced to sit for over eight hours on the tarmac at JFK airport in New York. Drinking water and food supplies gave out, toilets overflowed and parents resorted to ripping up T-shirts to make diapers. JetBlue had kept its aircraft in the takeoff queue during a lengthy ice storm in a calculated gamble to avoid cancellations and diminished profits. The non-union, cut-rate carrier, a darling of Wall Street, then fell apart. The airline canceled more than 1,100 flights over the next six days, as management was unable to coordinate operations and move personnel to offset the initial disruptions. The meltdown exposed how the company’s much-heralded profitability rests largely on short staffing, an undersized fleet, a shoestring communications system, etc.

The JetBlue nightmare is emblematic of the ever-more unfriendly skies of the U.S. airline industry, where drastic cost-cutting is common to all carriers. JetBlue was only one of several airlines that screwed over their customers during the Valentine’s Day storm. And in December, American Airlines stranded hundreds of passengers on a runway in Texas for almost nine hours. Workers and passengers alike have suffered from airlines competing for profits by slashing wages, stealing pensions and stretching their operations dangerously thin, at the expense of safety as well as comfort.

In few industries is the relationship between working conditions and passenger service and safety as direct as it is in air transport. Passengers are increasingly being squeezed into tiny, narrow seats of jam-packed aircraft while the workers handling their luggage, the flight attendants serving them, the mechanics making the planes airworthy and the pilots doing the flying are regularly overworked and otherwise abused. Even as the skies are more crowded than ever, the airlines continue to cut staffing.

A concerted effort by the unions to organize JetBlue would be a giant step toward reversing the industry-wide offensive against jobs, wages and working conditions. Crucially, the situation also cries out for organizing workers at “third party” contractors, to whom maintenance and other work is increasingly outsourced. Since 2001, the bosses at the major carriers have wrung massive concessions from the unions in part by raising the bogeyman of the non-union JetBlue, where lower wages, hefty health care payments, harsh discipline and unpaid, off-the-clock training courses are the norm. JetBlue CEO David Neeleman is known for bragging that by keeping out unions, the carrier has avoided “unproductive labor work rules.” After the Valentine’s Day disaster, the same Neeleman appeared on the David Letterman show begging the public to give the airline another chance.

JetBlue’s contempt for its passengers and workers is a matter of record. In 2005, JetBlue conducted an “experiment” in which 29 pilots flew up to 11 hours in a day, in excess of the legal limit of eight hours, in an attempt to show that pilots could fly longer hours without fatigue. This grotesque exercise was halted only after leaders of pilots unions complained to FAA headquarters. With its 2006 “Return to Profitability” plan, JetBlue cut the number of employees per aircraft by 14 percent while continuing to expand its flight network—an invitation to disaster.

The company’s flight attendants, who have to clean the aircraft cabins because the company is too cheap to hire cleaners, are trying to organize into the Association of Flight Attendants. Baggage handlers have fought to be organized into the International Association of Machinists. But last year, the National Mediation Board intervened to block a union certification election after the company inflated the list of eligible voters, a common tactic employed by corporations and backed by the capitalist government.

Responsibility for the failure to undertake the necessary hard struggle to organize JetBlue and other non-union outfits lies with the pro-capitalist union tops, who see the bosses and their state as “partners.” The labor tops at United Airlines pushed the company’s Employee Stock Ownership Plan in exchange for massive concessions, a scheme that proved absolutely worthless when the company went bankrupt. Airline unions have enormous social power—the world economy simply could not function without air transport. But instead of using that power, the leadership of the airline unions has allowed the companies to pick them off one by one.

The consequences of the bureaucrats’ class collaborationism were made graphically clear when the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA) at Northwest Airlines struck against outsourcing and cutbacks in 2005, the most significant industry strike in recent years. The request for solidarity by the AMFA craft union was met with outright scabbing orchestrated by the leaders of the other unions, many of whom rationalized their backstabbing by complaining about AMFA’s raids against the Machinists, Teamsters and others. The strike went down to a bitter defeat, and an opportunity to improve the fighting position of workers at all carriers was betrayed.

By reinforcing craft divisions as well as divisions among workers at different companies, the union tops feed into the endless attempts by the airline bosses to pit workers against each other. What’s needed is a single industrial union of workers—from cleaners to pilots—at all airlines, prepared by united strike action to defend working conditions and extend hard-fought gains. There must be a fight inside the unions to oust the “labor lieutenants of capital,” who are tied to the capitalist Democratic—and sometimes Republican—parties. Labor needs a new, class-struggle leadership, one that stands for building a workers party committed to the fight for a workers government.

Airline workers have fared no better under Democratic administrations than under the Republicans. Bill Clinton invoked the Railway Labor Act 14 times against potential rail and aviation strikes. Jimmy Carter deregulated the airline industry in 1978, paving the way for more than two decades of union-busting attacks, deteriorating passenger service and an explosion in non-union, cut-rate carriers like JetBlue. The Carter administration also drew up the plans carried out by Ronald Reagan to smash the PATCO air traffic controllers union when it went on strike in 1981. At the time, the AFL-CIO misleaders conducted an impotent consumer boycott instead of the effective solidarity strike action needed to beat back the union-busting.

Today, the air traffic control system is short of at least 1,000 controllers, with an antiquated, crumbling infrastructure. Last August, a Comair flight crashed in Lexington, Kentucky, killing 49 people, after the FAA assigned only one overworked, sleep-deprived controller to the shift (see “Kentucky Air Disaster: Bitter Fruit of Union Busting,” WV No. 876, 15 September 2006). Only a few days after the crash, the FAA imposed a new contract slashing salaries for new controllers by more than 30 percent and eliminating mandatory break time and forcing controllers to work even if exhausted.

The JetBlue debacle points to the danger and inefficiency of the airline industry under capitalism. A system that puts profits above all else cannot provide safe, pleasant travel for passengers and decent working conditions for its employees. The chaos in air transport is an example of the anarchy and decay reigning in capitalist production generally. The situation cries out for the expropriation of the airline corporations and the capitalist class as a whole by a workers government and the construction of a centralized, planned economy.