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Unions retreat--but airlines want more

By Lee Sustar | September 27, 2002 | Page 11

UNION LEADERS at United Airlines were set to respond to United's demands for $9 billion in givebacks as Socialist Worker went to press.

Although union officials initially rejected United's six-year proposal, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) and International Association of Machinists (IAM) have already accepted concessions in principle.

Moreover, management's latest demand for givebacks at United comes after ALPA, the AFA, the IAM and other unions agreed to billions in concessions at bankrupt US Airways.

US Airways' customer service representatives, members of the Communications Workers of America, voted 75 percent in favor of a deal that cuts wages 8 percent over seven years.

The airline's 6,800 mechanics represented by the IAM initially voted to reject concessions. Then management threatened to take its proposal to a bankruptcy judge, who has the power to set aside the contract altogether.

Moreover, the federal Air Transportation Stability Board (ATSB) also demands concessions from labor as a condition for the loan sought by US Airways.

Rather than mobilize against these threats, IAM officials pushed mechanics to vote on the concessions they had rejected. Workers were furious. As two mechanics in Charlotte, N.C., put it to reporters, "What part of 'no' don't you understand?"

But with no resistance from the IAM, many mechanics felt the choice was between taking cuts or having a job at all. In the end, some 57 percent voted to accept $160 million in givebacks, including pay cuts of 6.8 percent and fewer holidays, sick days and vacation days.

Meanwhile, IAM officials took care of their own interests, securing a $2.1 million payment from US Airways to the union for "negotiating expenses." Management also agreed to recognize the IAM in advance as the representative for a new, low-wage subsidiary airline--ensuring continued dues payments to the union.

The picture is similar at United, where the IAM and ALPA hold seats on the board as part of an Employee Stock Ownership Program, which was created in exchange for lower wages in 1994. Mechanics and other IAM members at United only just achieved industry-standard pay in a contract negotiated earlier this year--and are now pressured to give much of those gains right back.

IAM leaders at first rejected United's demands as too severe. But when management threatened to file for bankruptcy, leaders of the IAM and other unions went into negotiations among themselves--and kept rank-and-file members in the dark.

Jennifer Biddle, a mechanic and shop steward in IAM Local 1781, said union members are furious. "People saw what happened [in IAM concessionary contracts] at Boeing and US Airways and feel that the tide is against us," she told Socialist Worker.

"We need to organize a 'no' vote on concessions--hold lunch-time meetings, have handbills. We need to go out to talk to people. It's time for anyone who wants to fight back against this to step to the plate."

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