U.S. Labor as Collateral Damage

Against the Current, No. 95, November/December 2001

Malik Miah

WHAT IMPACT IS Bush’s war against terrorism having on American workers?  A look at what’s happened to airline workers since the tragic events of September 11 provides a glimpse of what is in store for workers as the economy stumbles into recession.

We’ve all heard about the incidents: Arab and Middle Eastern looking passengers being walked off aircraft because of “fear” by other passengers or flight attendants or pilots.  At San Francisco’s airport up to ten people daily have suffered this fate in September.  No apologies are offered.

At United Airlines a longtime lead employee attacks a Muslim worker from Fiji after the September 11 terror attack.  Teenagers in a small northern California town murder a storeowner from Yemen, a U.S. resident for thirty-five years.

More than 625 incidents of anti-Arab, anti-Muslim attacks are reported to Arab-American anti-discrimination organizations nationwide as of September 28.  President Bush and the government say they’re against such hate crimes, but ethnic scapegoating goes on. Apologists say such racial/ethnic profiling is a necessary evil to protect our way of life and civilization.

New legislation, approved by Congress, now allows police to detain suspected immigrants for seven days without filing charges.

Fear of Flying and Recession

Airline workers face new closer scrutiny at airports and some face harassment.  Civil liberties are out the window in “our” time of “national emergency,” the domestic flip side of Bush’s international war drive to fight terrorism.

Is the economy in a recession?  If the layoffs in the airline industry and its ripple affects in related industries are any indication, the answer is yes.

Soon after the terror attack, the federal government shut down all airports and commercial aviation.  Quickly the major airlines announced major schedule reductions, and one small carrier (Midway) said it would permanently go out of business.

The drastic reductions in flight schedules (31% reduction at United Airlines) and mandatory new security checks have put the spotlight on all airline workers and their jobs. Many in government targeted airline workers as possible partners of the terrorists who crashed the commercial airlines.

The four aircraft were owned by the two largest airlines in the world—American and United.

Hundreds of flight attendants have resigned out of fear. Thousands more are taking voluntary leaves of absence.  Pilots are requesting from Congress the right to bear arms on aircraft.

Skycaps were shut down for two weeks, then told to go through new criminal background checks.  Other airport workers are being laid off as tighter security prevents them from earning a living.  At United’s Maintenance Base in San Francisco employees face random checks as they enter work. All metal silverware, for example, is banned.

At the San Francisco airport, mechanics who must go on planes to fix a problem can’t bring on tools while passengers are on board.  I know of one case where the entire plane was evacuated before the mechanic could change a burnt out bulb!

At the same time, the low-paid screeners (many Asian immigrants) are facing loss of jobs as they are partly blamed for the poor training and security violations.  Foreign-born workers and residents face closer examination by passengers and co-workers.  Flying While Brown means keeping quiet and possibly facing harassment.

Massive Layoffs, Management Greed

Planned layoffs in the industry are massive: 20,000 at American and TWA (owned by American); 20,000 at United; 13,000 at Delta; 12,000 at Continental; 11,000 at US Airways; 10,000 at Northwest; and thousands more at the other carriers.  The total could be over 100,000 employees, with more coming if air travel doesn’t pick up.

Boeing, based in Seattle and the largest aircraft manufacturer in the world, announced plans to lay off 30,000 workers by the end of 2002.

General aviation (prop planes and privately owned) too has been hit hard. Most are still grounded by the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) because they lack proper instrumentation.

As an airline employee, I’ve seen firsthand how the blows of September 11 are hitting this sector of the workforce.  I work as a mechanic at United Airlines main maintenance base in San Francisco.  United employs some 20,000 workers in the Bay Area as mechanics, baggage handlers, customers service agents, flight attendants, pilots and many other positions.  Most are in unions.

United lost eighteen employees on the two aircraft that crashed on September 11.

Instead of working with the employees and the unions, United’s top management took steps to protect their own jobs and their major shareholders.  Word spread on the property that the company would declare bankruptcy unless Bush and Congress financially bailed out the airlines.

Government Bailout

When the top executives met with government officials on a possible $24 billion bailout (later reduced to $15 billion), there was no mention of helping out laid off workers or proving job retraining.

Congress did approve at the end of September $5 billion in grants and $10 billion in low interest loans.  The government also agreed to cover costs above insurance claims for those who died and pay for airport security costs.

It is not clear if the security will be federally controlled and run or just overseen by the airlines as it is now. The airlines now take the lowest bidder for these minimum wage-no benefits jobs.

The bailout did not include mandates to extend unemployment benefits or healthcare coverage.  In fact, United and the other major airlines dropped hints that they were too broke even after the bailout to cover contractually agreed severance payments.

“It’s outrageous that American [Airlines] would ask the workers to support them on getting this massive federal bailout and then turn around to slap the workers in the face by failing to honor its commitments,” said Edward Wytkind, executive director of the transportation trades department of the AFL-CIO, after American first said it had been hurt too badly by the terrorist attacks to pay severance payments.

At Northwest Airlines a similar threat by management led to legal action by the mechanics’ union, the Aircraft Mechanics’ Fraternal Association (AMFA).

The likely public scandal and possible backlash by Congress led the top executives at American, United, Northwest and other carriers to defer their wages for the rest of the year and agree to pay severance and other benefits—a small victory.

Business as Usual

Yet the bosses aren’t becoming more humane.  It was revealed on October 1 that United’s management was wiring $11.25 million to a French airplane manufacturer as a down payment in an order for thirty luxury business jets for a new subsidiary, Avolar.

The payment occurs as the company is firing thousands of longtime employees and receiving an $802 million taxpayer grant from the government.  To add insult to injury, UAL’s Avolar managers are going to hire a new workforce to manage and service the luxury line. Laid off workers (salaried and union) can only apply as new hires.

The business jet venture exposes the cold-blooded nature of the airline business—an industry that was in trouble before the terror attack—and the capitalist system itself.  It’s business as usual.

There is a lesson for working people.  In crises like the ongoing one, the value of and need for strong unions becomes sorely apparent.  Otherwise, workers are defenseless.

Malik Miah works as a mechanic at United’s San Francisco Maintenance operations Center.

from ATC 95 (November/December 2001)