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Workers at four airlines step up contract fights
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A socialist newsweekly published in the interests of working people
Vol. 65/No.11March 19, 2001

40th Anniversary Celebration of the victory of the Cuban people at Bay of Pigs and Cuba's successful campaign to wipe out illiteracy. Seattle March 18
Workers at four airlines step up
contract fights
(lead article)
Photo - see caption below
Militant/Herb Van Burgel
March 5 informational picket at Southwest Airlines in Houston where workers are fighting for a contract that includes higher pay. Workers at Northwest Airlines voted to strike March 12, but the White House has threatened to intervene against the union.
ATLANTA--"I hope President Bush does not intervene and allows us to withhold our labor. It's the only power we have right now," said Terry Samuda, a mechanic at Northwest Airlines. Samuda was part of a team of union members who distributed fliers at Atlanta's Hartsfield airport February 27 in their fight for a contract with the carrier.

The Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA) represents some 10,000 mechanics, cleaners, and janitors at Northwest Airlines (NWA). They have been working under a contract that expired four years ago. Workers voted by a 96 percent margin March 3 to start job actions, up to a strike, against the airline on March 12. The vote came as flight attendants and mechanics at American; ramp and other workers at Southwest; and mechanics, cleaners, and ramp workers at United are organizing picket lines and slowdowns as part of fights for contracts at those major carriers.

Pilots at Delta set up informational picket lines around the country last week, and on February 25, pilots at Comair rejected an offer of arbitration by the mediation board in their contract negotiations with the airline. The National Mediation Board released the Comair pilots, organized by the Air Line Pilots Association, for a 30-day strike countdown.

In the current round of negotiations at American, the airline won a temporary restraining order from a federal judge March 2 against the Transport Workers Union, saying that a work slowdown by mechanics at New York's JFK airport forced the company to cancel 90 flights two days earlier. The company said there were "excessive maintenance write-ups on fake safety issues," according to CNN. The union represents 31,000 workers at American. Their contract with the company expired March 1.

In a blow to the Allied Pilots Association, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a ruling this past week that the pilots association and two of its officers must pay $45.5 million to American in compensatory damages for a pilot sick-out in February 1999 that was ruled illegal by the courts. The 10-day sick-out forced the carrier to cancel nearly 6,700 flights as pilots protested the lower pay rate for pilots at Reno Air, which American had bought up.  
Workers oppose gov't intervention
AMFA members at Northwest were recently released by the National Mediation Board (NMB) for a 30-day "cooling off" period, after which they may legally strike. However, President George Bush says he will intervene and accepted the NMB's recommendation to set up a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB), a move that would delay a strike for at least another 60 days past the March 12 deadline.

Although routinely used in labor disputes on the railroads, this would only be the second time since 1966 the White House stepped in to stop a strike at an airline. The other was in 1997 when President William Clinton ordered pilots back to work at American Airlines minutes after they walked off the job.

By ordering a presidential board "Bush is trying to force us to give in to the company's demands," stated Samuda. "The threat of a Presidential Emergency Board is a scare tactic aimed at us. He is weighing in on the side of the company. If you were Northwest would you negotiate now, or wait until the president intervened?"

Both Washington's intervention on the company's side and the restriction on the right to strike are opposed by AMFA. In a March 3 press release, O.V. Delle-Femine, AMFA's national director, said that by setting up a presidential board, "the administration would essentially be dictating the collective bargaining process and taking away labor's right to seek self-help"--a term AMFA officials use for a strike. "This has serious implications for not only AMFA, but all airline unions negotiating at this time."

According to Dave Argentina, a Northwest mechanic here and a veteran of the 1989–91 strike at Eastern Airlines, the contract fight between AMFA and Northwest has broad ramifications. "How this goes, the rest of the industry goes too," he said.

The main issue in the contract fight is wages. Quin Mathis, a NWA mechanic, gave some background to the union's wage demands. "We haven't had a contract for four years. We haven't had a contract with a raise in nine years. In 1993, we agreed to a three-year, 12.5 percent pay cut and additional concessions," he said.

Some big-business media have been on a campaign to exaggerate what AMFA is demanding of the company. For example, Detroit Free Press columnist Doron Levin wrote in a February 15 column that AMFA "seeks a wages scale higher than any airline's current scale, so much higher it would vault mechanics' pay to about that of some pilots." Workers in Minneapolis report that the company sent a letter to employees stating that the mechanics are demanding wages equaling $170,000 a year.

"The company's figures are bogus, irresponsible," Samuda said. "All we're asking for is what we would be making if we had a 3 percent raise over the last nine years when we didn't get a raise." According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, AMFA is asking for wages of $31.07 an hour. Since 1996 the company has reported more than $2 billion in net income.

Mike Tschida, a mechanic in Minneapolis, said AMFA is demanding a "top pay for mechanics of $32 per hour. Adjusting for inflation, this is equivalent to the pay NWA mechanics received in 1990 before we made the big givebacks. The company offer is $27 per hour, so there is quite a difference. Resisting the continuing demands of the company for givebacks is important. Unless you do this, the company will degrade your income and your working conditions."

Another mechanic in Minneapolis said leaders of AMFA "have been saying since the start of the negotiations that if the mechanics act like professionals then the company will treat us like professionals, and pay us accordingly. This has not worked. The company is underestimating our resolve. The mechanics are preparing for a strike."

In December the union's negotiating position was to increase top pay for cleaners and janitors to $20 an hour. This is a smaller percentage raise than for the mechanics.

Arlene Rubinstein is a meat packer and a member of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1996. Tom Fiske from St. Paul, Minnesota, contributed to this article.
HOUSTON--Southwest airlines workers March 2 marched through the passenger pickup, baggage claim, and ticket counter areas at the Houston Hobby airport here, a hub of the "low-cost" carrier. The action, organized as part of informational picketing, was part of the fight for a contract with Southwest by the Transport Workers Union of America (TWU) Local 555.

Negotiations between the union and the company have been going on since December 1999. A tentative agreement was rejected in a vote by union members last November over the length of employment necessary before a worker reaches top pay, benefits, low wages, and forced overtime. Beside a one-day strike 20 years ago, this is the first organized job action in this airline's 30-year history. The TWU has represented 5,300 ramp, operations, and provisioning workers at the airline for four years.

Tim Waddell, a ramp worker with seven months seniority, was forced to work three double shifts in a row the previous weekend. "We have to push ourselves to make a wage you can live on," he said. Another ramp worker, Marcus García, said he had been denied overtime until recently, forcing him to get a second job.

TWU District Representative Jerry McCrummen pointed to the record profits the company has made over the last six years and confirmed that the low wages paid by the airline "make it necessary for many workers to do large amounts of overtime just to live." At Southwest it takes 15 years seniority to reach the top pay scale, compared to five-and-one-half years at Northwest and nine years at Delta.

Workers also say they are fighting the excessive workload demanded by the company. One example of this is that there are approximately 90 workers employed per airplane at Southwest compared to 140 at American airlines. Union members say they are planning further pickets over the coming weeks.

Phil Duzinski is a textile worker.
Related article:
Airline workers find ways to fight

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