United mechanics ready to strike
By Lee Sustar | January 25, 2002 | Page 11
SOME 10,600 mechanics at United Airlines could strike February 20 in a high-stakes battle for the entire labor movement.
The mechanics, members of the International Association of Machinists (IAM) District 141-M, took a 9.7 percent pay cut in 1994 and gave up paid lunches and other concessions in exchange for participation in an Employee Stock Ownership Program (ESOP).
Last year, mechanics' wages finally "snapped back" to 1994 levels. But the top wage is still one-third lower than their counterparts at American Airlines.
In 1999, United grabbed record profits. Pilots, whose union also participates in the ESOP, won major contract gains the next year. But with the recession and the decline in air travel following September 11, the company is losing money--and wants mechanics to pay the price.
United, which laid off 20,000 people in September, is demanding that mechanics accept a five-year contract with a pay freeze until the company returns to profitability. Meanwhile, the collapse in United's stock price has reduced the value of the ESOP, which was supposed to make up for lost wages.
"There are a lot of parallels between the Enron 401(k) plan and the United ESOP--you're locked in," said Jennifer Biddle, a shop steward at IAM Local 1781 in San Francisco. "You can't sell the stock until you retire or leave the company, and today the value of my stock is $3,000 or $4,000. That's for nearly 10 years of concessions."
The strike deadline was set after a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) made its recommendations for a settlement to management and the union. The PEB, appointed by George W. Bush, admitted, "There is simply no justification" for United's demands for a pay freeze for mechanics. But the board's "solution" is that the company grant the IAM a big raise--and then demand concessions from the IAM and other unions at United together!
The PEB's report to Bush triggered a 30-day countdown under the Railway Labor Act, which covers airlines. After that time, workers are free to strike--but Congress can step in and impose a settlement at any time. While this has happened many times in railroad disputes, Congress has never taken this step in an airline strike.
Since Bush has already announced that he will move to ban airline strikes, United bosses are calculating that the IAM will back down. But IAM members--who voted in December to authorize a strike by 99 percent--have had enough. "United's accountant is Arthur Andersen," Biddle told Socialist Worker. "How can we trust them?"
The struggle at United highlights all the issues facing unions today. "We have endured many years of concessions, and the cost of living has skyrocketed," Biddle said. "We are also dealing with issues of globalization. They want to outsource work to other countries where labor is cheaper and there isn't the government oversight that exists here. People need to wake up and start fighting."