The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx


Oct 7, 2002

Don't sacrifice for the bosses – they're on the opposite side of the line

In response to United Airlines' outrageous demand that workers give up nine billion dollars in concessions, spread over six years, leaders of the five unions which represent United workers offered a counter proposal: they are ready to give five billion dollars worth of "savings" in labor costs, spread over five years. If these "savings" were to be divided equally among United's 66,000 union workers, this would average out to about $15,000 a year.

The coalition of five unions said that this package plus other "cost savings" and "broad initiatives" it had proposed would allow United to increase "its core profitability" by two to three billion dollars a year. And what are those other "cost-savings"? The union press release forgot to explain that, but whatever else is included, increased productivity – that is a brutal increase in the workload of every worker – is sure to head the list.

Said the president of the flight attendants union: "Being a part of the solution that assists United in surviving its near-term financial crisis is central to our goal of ensuring that the Flight Attendants' long-term interests are represented."It's the classical class collaboration that union leaders have pushed for years. Despite all evidence to the contrary, they continue to argue that if workers ensure the well-being of their own company, they will guarantee their own well-being.

What has happened in the airline industry itself proves exactly the opposite.

In 1994, the unions at United made similar arguments, justifying a round of concessions they gave up then. The pilots and the machinists, along with salaried non-union employees, gave up 4.8 billion dollars in pay cuts, and reduced pension contributions. In exchange, they got 55% of company stock shares – and the company's promise that it would repay wage and benefit cuts when company prospects turned up.

Things didn't quite work out as promised. It's true that company profits soared: between 1996 and 2000, United racked up 5.9 billion dollars in earnings. As late as 2001, United had so much spare money lying around, it could propose to buy USAir for 4.3 billion dollars, plus taking responsibility for paying 7.3 billion dollars in USAir's debt.

The workers were left out in the cold. While the pilots recovered some of their losses at the end of 2000, the rest of the workers did not see any restoration of wage and benefit cuts until the spring of this year. But only a few months later, the company came back, demanding new and much bigger concessions – nine billions worth.

As for the famous stock – which supposedly turned United into a "worker-owned company" – today it's worth almost nothing, only 2.5% of what it was worth in 1997, and the company, by threatening bankruptcy, shows it is ready even to get rid of that obligation.

Despite all claims to the contrary, concessions did not save jobs. They did not produce an improvement in the workers' standard of living. They produced only an enormous increase in wealth for the executives and rich investors and money with which the company sought to buy up other companies.

The workers and the bosses do not stand on the same side. The bosses accumulate their wealth by exploiting us. We can defend ourselves only by taking back some of that wealth. The bosses put their interests first. The workers have to do exactly the same.

When the bosses want concessions, of course they can produce a balance sheet that shows they are about to go out of business. But balance sheets lie. The proof is how fast the richest people in this country have increased their wealth, leaving the rest of us further and further behind.

The ability of the workers to defend our standard of living does not depend on what a faked-up balance sheet shows. It depends on our understanding that we have nothing in common with the bosses who exploit our labor; and it depends on our readiness to fight for ourselves. This is what will decide the fate of the workers at United today, and the rest of the working class tomorrow.