Dec 9, 2002
The Air Transportation Stabilization Board rejected the loan application of United Airlines and the company seems headed toward bankruptcy. This came after United mechanics rejected the deal that the heads of their union, the Machinists, had negotiated with management to reopen their current contract, giving wage and benefit concessions back to the company.
The papers report that the contract the mechanics rejected included pay cuts of 6% to 7% each year and replaced four paid vacation days a year with four unpaid layoff days. All told, the concessions demanded of the 13,000 mechanics were reported to have totaled 700 million dollars, about $54,000 from each worker. They were part of a larger deal that the heads of the unions representing United workers had already agreed to: pilots were to give back 2.2 billion dollars worth of wage and benefit concessions; flight attendants, 412 million; customer service and reservation agents, who were also represented by the Machinists union, 800 million. Another 1.1 billion dollars was supposed to have come from salaried workers and from management.
For months, United management threatened its workers with bankruptcy – and then job loss – if they didn't agree to give up concessions. These threats have been backed up by the special airline bill that Congress passed, with both Democrats and Republicans signing on. The government offered loans to airlines in trouble, but only if the airlines get their workers to make sizeable sacrifices. Almost before the ink was dry on this bill, the government board set up to administer the loans enforced the company's concessions demands. When United management cut a deal with the heads of the unions, the board sent them back to negotiate even bigger concessions. After the second agreement, the board announced that it would not OK the loans any time soon because it needed "still more information" on the details of the workers' concessions. This announcement was followed by United's statement that it would be forced to declare bankruptcy soon if it didn't get the loans by December 2, the day it has some old loans coming due. Of course, after the first no-vote by the Machinists, United announced it had 10 more days to settle the loan – and thus avoid bankruptcy.
In fact, the Board was simply helping United push the workers into a corner. United was implicitly making the same threat that USAir had made to its workers explicitly: if you don't give us the concessions we want, we will go into bankruptcy, and the courts will take even bigger cutbacks from you.
This is all part of a shell game, taking advantage of September 11 – still – in order to justify bigger and bigger sacrifices from the workers.
The mechanics were right to reject the concessions demands. But they should have no illusion that a no-vote will protect them, or keep United from using its allies to try to impose the concessions it wants. The government, with both Democrats and Republicans concurring, has already shown it is ready to use its weight to make the workers back down.
If United goes bankrupt, that does not mean that the workers can't defend themselves. It simply means they will have to fight to do so – including against their own union leadership that negotiated the concessions.
United management may have the government and the top heads of the unions on its side. But the workers something that the other side doesn't have: the workers have the forces that count in the industry; they are the ones who make this airline function. And the workers too can have allies – first of all, workers at other airlines, who will face the same demands if United workers give in. But beyond that, there is a whole working class in this country which has been seeing its standard of living go down for the better part of two decades.
These are the people that matter. These are the forces that give the United workers the possibility to resist the airline'