Mar 19, 2001
Earlier in March, President Bush issued an executive order barring a potential strike by mechanics at Northwest Airlines. He also said he would block walkouts at any major airline this year –supposedly to prevent millions of travelers from being inconvenienced by strikes and slowdowns.
How touching! Suddenly the government is concerned about consumers, the air travelers. When it came to worsening conditions and service such as overcrowded airports and planes, increasing flight delays and the erosion of safety that goes with it, the government claimed its hands were tied. The government pretended it couldn't force the airlines to provide decent service. But when airline workers demand the right to fight for better pay and benefits and, incidentally, a reduced workload which would improve safety, the government can spring into action immediately.
This has nothing to do with the interests of the consumer. The consumer is only the excuse the government uses for protecting the profits of the big airlines.
At Northwest, profits have been huge. It generated so much cash, it was able to buy a major stake in Continental Airlines, the fifth largest airline in the country.
Meanwhile, Northwest has really stuck it to the mechanics. In 1993, when Northwest claimed it would go bankrupt unless it got major concessions from all its unions, the unions agreed to cuts in pay, vacations and work rule changes that were valued at 897 million dollars over three years. At the end of the concession period, wages and holidays returned to the pre-1993 level, and mechanics received a pay increase of one to three%. In other words, they were still behind the rate of inflation. When the mechanics’ contract came up again in 1996, the company simply stalled the union; it has been doing that ever since. The mechanics have not had a contract –nor a wage increase –in over four years.
The unions have denounced Bush, claiming that his executive order demonstrates what the Republicans are.
That's true –just as the Democrats demonstrated what they are in 1997 when Clinton broke the American Airlines pilots strike after they were out for exactly seven minutes. Bush may have jumped the gun –but both Clinton and Bush made it clear they wouldn't accept a strike. President Clinton, the supposed friend of the unions and workers, appointed a three-member mediation board with two of its three members coming from management. Its chairman, Francis Duggan, was a vice president of the Association of American Railroads, while Magdelena Jacobsen was a labor relations manager for Continental Airlines. Not surprisingly, this board has taken Northwest's side against the mechanics at every step.
The Democrats and Republicans both stand ready to use the government against the workers.
This doesn't mean the mechanics at Northwest have to accept whatever injustice the company and the government impose. Workers in the entire airline industry are facing the same kinds of injustices as the Northwest mechanics, with the government helping all the companies to keep the lid on tight.
The problem is for the workers to find a way to blow that lid off. And that means starting to make a big fight. Maybe the mechanics at Northwest could begin the fight. Then it will be up to other workers to break down the barriers that separate them, and begin to fight together, using the power they have as workers, as the people who make everything run, and can make everything stop. It is up to the workers to claim the right to strike as their own.