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Los Angeles Times
November 18, 2004

Airline Workers: Up in the Air and Losing Ground
Unions must merge to deal with turbulent
times in the industry.
By Jonathan Tasini*

WAL-MART HAS DRAWN A LOT of attention for its low
wages, measly benefits and relentlessly anti-union
posture. But Wal-Mart is just a symbol of a larger
trend that is dragging down the standard of living for
American workers. Just consider the once-prestigious
airline industry, where workers who in the past made a
very good, middle-class living are now giving back
billions of dollars in wages, pensions and health

It's hard to argue against the idea that one or more of
the large, traditional airlines will soon close its
doors; there are simply too many seats and not enough
passengers to fill them. The liquidating airlines will
sell off routes and planes to other ailing competitors
or to the low-cost Wal-Marts of the skies like JetBlue,
AirTran and ATA, which have transformed the business by
brutally cutting costs and running maniacally efficient
operations. Thousands of jobs will be lost. The
remaining workers will face a grim future of lower pay,
no healthcare coverage and lost or vastly reduced

JetBlue, for example, offers no traditional pension,
and workers must pay a large part of any healthcare
costs. The traditional, larger airlines are sliding
backward toward the JetBlue standard. United used to
fully cover its employees' healthcare; now workers have
to pay 25% of the cost. JetBlue's machinist wages are
only slightly lower than United's, but that's because
of the double-digit percentage cut in United's
machinists wages. JetBlue's pilot pay is nearly
competitive with Delta's, but that's only because
Delta's pilots, threatened by the airline's possible
bankruptcy, just agreed to a 33% pay cut with no wage
increases for five years.

The low-fare airlines also don't shoulder the burden of
the "legacy costs" - the long-term costs for employee
pensions and retiree healthcare that the traditional
airlines have. We once valued companies that took such
responsibility for the people who had invested their
sweat and blood to make the company a success. Now
these costs are seen as a drag on competitiveness.

How has this happened in what is perhaps the most
unionized industry in the country? First, there has
been no overall labor plan for an industrywide solution
because there are too many unions representing airline
industry workers - a dysfunctional structure
symptomatic of the entire labor movement. There are
three airline pilots unions, three unions representing
flight attendants and seven other unions representing
ticket agents, machinists, air traffic controllers and
baggage handlers. Each union has separate interests and
a separate constituency.

Moreover, unions are too often "company" unions,
meaning they are negotiating and managing the rights of
workers at a specific airline rather than for the
entire industry. When a union agrees to concessions in
a bid to save jobs at one airline, inevitably another
airline will demand the same of its workers, who are
represented by a different union. That leads to an
unending cycle of wage cuts aimed at remaining
competitive or preserving jobs of airline workers.

What airline workers need is a merger of all the unions
into one or two unions. The larger, merged union would
encompass the entire industry, allowing labor leaders
to set forth one standard for acceptable wages,
benefits and work rules, and to better manage the
crisis facing airline workers.

The union could also, more effectively, threaten to
strike any airline trying to use bankruptcy to cut
wages or pensions, as United and US Airways have done
and Delta is threatening to do. Even if a strike drove
one carrier out of business, such a scenario would be
preferable to the never-ending race to the bottom
currently underway. Right now, each union usually has
to flex its muscle alone, as the flight attendants did
this week, threatening to strike United and US Airways
if the airlines used the courts to renege on their
labor contracts. Unless unions see their goal as
establishing and fighting for an industry standard, the
workers are doomed to be helpless victims of the
airline crisis.

Consumers are eagerly lapping up the low fares in the
skies, oblivious to the fact that they are helping
undercut the American middle-class dream. In effect, we
are putting our short-term pocketbook needs (low fares)
ahead of our longer-term interests - decent-paying jobs
and benefits. It would be far wiser to pay more for a
service in return for a society that values jobs that
support families and rewards work.

*Tasini is a labor strategist and writer in New York.
E-mail: jtasini@ economicfuturegroup.com.

Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times

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