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Airline bosses get their money's worth from Bush

by LEIGHTON CHRISTIANSEN | July 6, 2001 | Page 15

WASHINGTON, D.C.--Airline bosses are getting back every penny's worth of their campaign contributions to George W. Bush.

Late on June 30, as the clock was ticking down to a possible strike by American Airlines' 24,000 flight attendants, the company and the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA) announced a tentative contract. The deal came less than a week after Bush renewed his threat to prevent all airline strikes this year. No details will be announced before mid-July.

The flight attendants--who earn $15,000 to $36,000 per year--had been without a new contract since 1998. Flight attendants rejected an earlier contract offer--a six-year deal raising pay 21.6 percent, or less than 4 percent per year--and in February voted to authorize a strike.

Federal mediators imposed a 30-day cooling off period on June 1 in an effort to restart bargaining. But because of the Railway Labor Act, airline workers can't strike unless mediators declare an impasse and start a cooling-off period. Even after that cooling-off period, the Federal Mediation Board can ask for presidential intervention--another 60-day cooling-off period--and failing that, Congress can impose a contract.

Airline bosses have been using every twist and turn in the law to delay contract negotiations and invoke presidential power to force airline workers into accepting contracts.

Bush used his power to declare a Presidential Emergency Board to divert a strike by mechanics at Northwest in March. And APFA leaders canceled practice picketing, a candlelight vigil and other membership actions June 25--after Bush promised emergency action to his friend, American Airlines CEO Don Carty.

Bush ran the most expensive presidential campaign in U.S. history last year, and airline bosses helped foot the bill. Of the $6.8 million that the airlines spent, $4.1 million went to the Republicans. American Airlines topped the list with $1.4 million--with almost $1 million going to the Republicans.

"One could certainly assume that the campaign contributions and the relationship between [American CEO] Don Carty and Bush played a definite factor in the government intervention," said APFA spokesperson Lori Bassani.

Now that American has settled with its flight attendants and 15,000 maintenance workers represented by the Transport Workers Union, they're hoping to ride Bush's threat through negotiations with five remaining employee groups, including pilots.

Comair

HEBRON, Ky.--Comair pilots voted to accept management's third tentative contract proposal June 22, ending a three-month strike. The pilots, members of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), voted 64 percent to accept the five-year pact.

The pilots won gains on most contract issues. Starting pilot pay will go immediately from $15,000 per year to $21,000, while senior pilots will get a $23,000 increase to $89,000. ALPA members at Comair, the second largest regional airline, also won the industry's first company-paid pension plan, which will supplement an existing 401(k) plan.

Other parts of the contract call for pilots to gain six extra days off per year and retroactive pay covering the three years of negotiations, plus all pilots will be called back--despite Comair's threat to eliminate 400 pilots' jobs. While 1,350 pilots were on the seniority list at the start of the strike, 1,243 remain--the 107 others took jobs at other airlines.

Some pilots expressed disappointment with the deal. One of ALPA's stated aims was to eliminate what it called the two-tier wage scale between regional pilots and pilots at major domestic airlines. While the pay increase makes Comair pilots the best paid in the regional airline industry, it leaves them short of the pilot pay scale at the major airlines.

Comair's parent company, Delta, played hardball, threatening to close Comair if pilots didn't accept a tentative agreement two months ago. And Delta used its influence in the White House to buy President Bush's promise that he wouldn't allow a major airline strike this year.

Delta Airlines

Bush's threats also forced Delta pilots to accept a contract offer short of their demands.

On June 20, ALPA announced that members at Delta accepted a new five-year deal. Some 97 percent of Delta's 9,800 pilots cast ballots, with 70 percent voting yes.

The new contract--retroactive to May 2000 and amendable in 2005--provides Delta pilots with salary increases of 24 to 39 percent, while pilots at Delta Express, the airline's lower-cost subsidiary, would see increases of 63 percent.

Despite the increase, pilots at Delta Express will still be paid less than those at Delta. "I voted for it--reluctantly," Henry Turner, a pilot from South Carolina, told reporters. "I just didn't think we could do any better, and it would just be a terrible fight forever."

During negotiations that began in late 1999, Delta pilots refused overtime during holiday travel periods to pressure Delta to bargain.

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