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Workers threaten strike against United's drive to slash wages
UAL mechanics reject cuts

By Alan Maass | February 4, 2005 | Page 11

MECHANICS AT United Airlines showed their opposition to the company's drive to slash jobs, wages and benefits by rejecting a tentative contract filled with harsh concessions. But in balloting that ended a few days later, United pilots and flight attendants voted in favor of separate deals containing similarly huge cuts.

According to officials of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA), its 7,000 members at United--including mechanics, plane cleaners and related workers--voted "overwhelmingly" against the tentative deal.

The rejection has set the stage for a showdown. As Socialist Worker went to press, United went to a bankruptcy judge, who agreed to impose pay cuts on the mechanics.

The mechanics had also voted by a wide margin to authorize a strike if the judge imposed concessions on them. The union has some leverage. Business analysts say that United's financial situation is so precarious that a walkout which shuts down operations for even a few days could have a huge impact.

But management claims that mechanics are forbidden from striking under the Railway Labor Act--and vows to "take whatever action is necessary to prevent any potential disruption." If United can get the government to intervene again, AMFA would have to defy the law to take strike action. But union officials say that they are committed to carrying out the wishes of the membership, no matter what the consequences.

"My reaction was elation," Jennifer Salazar Biddle, a laid-off United mechanic, said of the vote. "It was really great news to hear that there was finally some real resistance to the restructuring. I think a lot of people who've been laid off in this process feel very similarly--that there's finally some hope that a group of people will resist.

The stakes are high--for United, for the labor movement and for the whole airline industry.

United wanted $725 million worth of concessions in the deals with the three unions--on top of $2.5 billion worth of cuts in wages and benefits that unions agreed to in 2003, after United declared bankruptcy.

The company claims that its latest proposed contract reduces mechanics' salaries by only 5 percent--less than the pilots and flight attendants. But the union calculated that the total package, including cuts in vacation pay and other concessions, amounts to an 18.3 percent reduction in wages and benefits. In addition, eased rules on outsourcing could lead to the loss of 1,000 jobs, according to an AMFA spokesperson.

AMFA officials say that they offered a proposal during the latest negotiations in which management would have gotten its concessions if it agreed to reimburse mechanics once high fuel prices and competitive pressures to keep fares down eased. But management rejected the union offer--showing that it was putting the company's long-term profitability ahead of any "partnership" with employees.

Meanwhile, United pilots in the Air Line Pilots Association agreed to a contract that cuts their pay by 11.8 percent. And the Association of Flight Attendants announced that its members at United narrowly approved the tentative deal, which cuts salaries by 9.5 percent, and reduces vacation pay and numerous categories of bonuses and premiums.

The assault on airline unions is dire at other companies as well--in particular, US Airways, which is also in bankruptcy. Last month, US Airways management also used the threat of a bankruptcy judge voiding union contracts to extract further concessions.

The airline bosses blame the industry's crisis on reduced flying since the September 11 attacks and a sharp spike in fuel costs. But the real problem lies deeper--the chaos caused by airline deregulation and a short-term scramble for profits that led to overcapacity during the 1990s. Now, the companies are in a cost-cutting war that could drive one or more of the industry's biggest names out of business--and union workers at every airline are paying the price, in the private-sector industry where union membership is highest.

For the last several years, airline unions have allowed companies like United to pit one against the other, with one-at-a-time concessions bargaining. By clinging to the idea that they should be "partners" with management in helping restore profits, the unions have missed one opportunity after another to organize a united fight.

Now, union workers face increasingly intolerable conditions in what once a labor stronghold. Flight attendants' wages and hours worked have been cut so sharply that some say they would be better off with a job at Wal-Mart. And as Richard Turk of AMFA summarized the situation for mechanics who have seen huge numbers of union jobs outsourced: "I don't care if you pay us $80 an hour. If only eight of us are left working, it really doesn't do any good."

The rejection vote by United mechanics could send a message that airline workers won't accept the industry's crisis being solved on their backs. But they need support and solidarity from the other unions at United, workers throughout the industry--and the entire labor movement.

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