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Flight Attendants, the Working Day and Labor Solidarity
by Seth Sandronsky
November 22, 2004

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A nationwide strike of 46,000 flight attendants has been authorized by the board of the Association of Flight Attendants. They are resisting airline employers making workers labor for longer hours at lower wages, and threatening to get rid of their pensions. A strike vote will be taken at four airlines -- UAL Corp.'s United, US Airways Group Inc., ATA Holdings Inc.'s ATA Airlines and Hawaiian Holdings Inc.'s Hawaiian Airlines -- with the votes set to be counted by the end of December.

Many U.S. air carriers are in financial distress and squeezing their work forces in an effort to return to profitability. The judicial branch of the state is a key player. For example, US Airways is trying to use federal bankruptcy court to void collective bargaining agreements for current and retired employees over hourly pay, pension plans and health care coverage.

Several factors are driving insolvency for US Airways. One is the rising price of jet fuel. This has increased the cost of energy for the carrier and the airline industry as a whole.

Meanwhile, U.S. businesses and households have less cash to spend on air travel as the cost of vehicle gas, home-heating oil and natural gas rises.

Will their buying power get a boost from the Bush tax cuts? Don’t hold your breath.

Also putting market pressure on US Airways and its work force is competition from low-wage carriers such as JetBlue Corp. For financially ailing airlines with union work forces, slashing their pay and benefits is a way to offset increased fuel costs and market share loss. We see a kind of one-two punch aimed at flight attendants, mechanics and management employed by US Airways.

The carrier has 28,000 employees. US Airways filed for its second bankruptcy protection in two years on Sept. 12. The airline could lose its airport gates, cash, flight routes and planes to federal and private lenders.

On the surface, market forces confront airlines and their employees.

Apparently, the marketplace is where profits are made and lost. However, this view largely hides the working day as the source of profitability.

Regardless of employment or wage rate, the ownership dynamic between who buys and sells labor generates private profits in the airline business and elsewhere in the economy. The ebbs and flows of the business cycle revolve around these relations of owners and workers, found increasingly in the service sector of rich nations such as the U.S. Crucially, the ownership class understands this dynamic very well, thus opposing higher wages and a shorter workday.

In the meantime, how well flight attendants engage the U.S. public could help shape the resolution of their potential labor action. Public backing of labor organizations matters. Just ask United Parcel Service workers who successfully struck their employer in 1997 due in part to the widespread support by ordinary people.

Rank and file members in unity with union leaders of the Teamsters led the strike. They won. Significantly, UPS employees beat back a multinational corporation pushing a labor-management program as a means to extend and intensify their workday.

Currently, U.S. airline workers resisting wage and benefit cuts could contribute to a debate on the (dis)empowerment of working people. Here is another opportunity for labor solidarity. The term needs to be rethought given the tightening linkages between corporations and state power.

On that note, organized labor is getting beaten up these days in part due to its development as a kind of privatized welfare program for members only.

Consider the decade before the Red Scare officially began in the U.S. Then, many labor union members agitated and achieved much for the common good.

In the words of author Ellen Schrecker, “The CIO—and not just its left-wing unions—had called for an expansion of the welfare state, pushing for a wide range of measures that included universal health insurance, public housing, and guaranteed economic security” (‘Labor and the Cold War: The Legacy of McCarthyism,’ American Labor and the Cold War, Rutgers University Press, 2004). Then, the employed and unemployed demanded of employers and the state to give up some wealth to those lacking it, with a prime example being the Social Security system that keeps millions of Americans out of poverty today.

Basic concepts about resistance to upper class interests have been and can again be grasped by regular folks. In the absence of such consciousness, wedge issues around the fetus and the flag hold many people’s attention.

Author Thomas Franks has observed that in the U.S., social issues such as human evolution in the 1920s lost their luster a decade later as unionized job and welfare state creation took center stage.

Currently, mega-billionaires like the Walton family, owners of union-free Wal-Mart Stores Inc. that pays low wages and reaps massive profits, are worsening the workday in a huge way. In California, a recent example is the company’s funding the defeat of Proposition 72. If voters had passed it, big employers would have been required to provide their workers with health insurance.

The corporate model of industry-wide collective bargaining agreements that helped to raise regular people’s living and working standards seems like a quaint relic. Despite and because of this, the American majority, of which airline workers are a part, can look with pride to past labor activism for inspiration. And then proceed accordingly.

Seth Sandronsky is a member of Peace Action and co-editor with Because People Matter, Sacramento’s progressive paper. He can be reached at:

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