"President Bush, read my lips, no more PEB," chanted 80 airline workers at a picket line outside the White House organized by the Airline Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA), which represents 10,000 mechanics, cleaners, and other workers at Northwest Airlines (NWA). The PEB is the Presidential Emergency Board set up to review the labor dispute and make recommendations to each side. If either party rejects the proposals the union can strike, the company can lock out the workers, or Congress can impose a settlement.
Union members at Northwest, who have been working under an expired contract for more than four years, voted by a 96 percent margin to start job actions against the airline March 12, but Bush stepped in three days beforehand.
One mechanic on a picket line of 50 outside Detroit's Metro airport stressed the importance of all unions coming together to support the mechanics and cleaners in AMFA. Another worker agreed. "It's eventually going to happen to every union member," she said. "In April I'll have been a cleaner at Northwest for 24 years, and I never thought it would come to this. We are just trying to get decent wages and working conditions to be able to feed our families. He [Bush] knows his family's going to eat!"
"I haven't had a raise since '94," Rich Hutton, a United Airlines mechanic, told the Detroit Free Press at the protest in front of the White House. "Congress votes themselves cost-of-living pay raises every year. Why can't we have the same?"
"People in labor should be able to go on strike," mechanic Tom Helisek told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "Before, we were just fighting the company. Now I guess we're fighting the government."
Bush told a crowd in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, that he had intervened because "it is important for our economy, but more important, it's important for the hardworking people of America to make sure air service is not disrupted." Noting that several other negotiations involving national carriers face deadlines within the next few weeks, the president stated, "I intend to take the necessary steps to prevent airline strikes from happening this year."
Workers and pilots at American, Comair, Delta, and United are all at various stages of negotiations. Some 14,000 mechanics at United Airlines, organized by the International Association of Machinists, have been without a contract since July. Flight attendants at American Airlines voted nearly unanimously to give their union strike authorization after two years of contract talks. Pilots at Delta have been in contract negotiations since September 1999, and the contract covering 31,000 members of the Transport Workers Union at American Airlines expired March 1.
Harry Shaw, a member of AMFA Local 38 in Memphis, Tennessee, told the New York Times, "He did it way too early. It destroyed the collective bargaining process." AMFA officials opposed Bush's move on similar grounds.
Railway Labor Act
Labor negotiations at airlines and railroads are governed by the antiunion Railway Labor Act. The law serves to string out negotiations to the benefit of the companies, tie the unions up in red tape, and put the weight of the federal government behind rules that tell the unions they cannot strike without permission from the National Mediation Board (NMB). Even after a NMB mediator declares an impasse and releases the unions from contract talks, the unions are not allowed to strike for 30 days.
Former chairman of the NMB Joshua Javits pointed to the effect the law has on unions in an interview with the New York Times. "In the rail industry," he said, "where you have the expectation of an emergency board, you have less success in reaching collective bargaining agreements. That history would suggest that emergency boards hurt successful collective bargaining."
AMFA officials point out that they were in negotiations with the company when President Bush made his announcement. After Bush intervened, AMFA officials announced they were at an impasse and listed 20 objections they had to a last-minute offer by Northwest. Three of the main sticking points are the company's back pay offer, which does not compensate workers for the four and a half years they have gone without a new contract; demands by Northwest for a four-year contract when the union wants three; and the lack of a payoff for unused sick time upon retirement.
Northwest negotiators told the Times, "We're confident that the PEB recommendation will be fair and just, and Northwest will accept the PEB's final recommendation."
Ellen Berman is a member of United Auto Workers Local 157. Stu Singer from Washington contributed to this article.
Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home