The Spark

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

United Airlines:
Massive demands for even more concessions

Jan 6, 2003

On December 9, United Airlines filed for bankruptcy. On December 12 and 13, it issued ultimatums to its unions for massive concessions: pilots would have to take 29% pay cuts; mechanics and baggage handlers, 13%; and flight attendants, 9%. All workers will have their holidays and vacations reduced, and their pension benefits cut by 38%. On December 28, the company went to bankruptcy court and filed a motion preparing the way for the judge to completely throw out the unions' contracts with the company.

As the attacks escalate, union leaders were doing their best to reinforce company demands. The Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) put it the most bluntly: "This process will mean further cuts to our contract and a bigger strain on our families." But the union says all this is worth it: "We will not be deterred from our goal of restoring United to the premiere airline in the world.... Those who doubt us will lose. They will not be able to compete with the new United." Too bad for all the flight attendants and other workers at competing airlines – not to mention the workers at United itself. According to the union's plan, other companies will not be able to compete against the new United – in other words, their workers, too, will have to cut wages and benefits, initiating a downward spiral of ever lower wages and benefits. In fact, this is exactly what the whole airline industry has in mind. The AFA is perfectly happy to work along with management in these attacks: "We are committed to continuing the unprecedented cooperation between employees and management that will be necessary to turn United around and successfully shepherd it through reorganization ."At first glance, leaders of the International Association of Machinists (IAM) appeared to reject the company's ultimatum. In fact, they didn't disagree with any of its provisions, only that they, themselves, had not been consulted before the ultimatum was issued. In a statement issued to explain their position, IAM leaders said: "The IAM believes United's financial problems can best be resolved with a business plan that emphasizes negotiations and partnership with its union-represented employees for the long-term health of the airline, its employees and shareholders."In reality, the stance of IAM leaders is not a rejection of concession demands, it's simply an attempt to appear militant in the eyes of their members, many of whom had voted against the earlier – and milder – concessions which IAM leaders had negotiated. The mechanics unit of the IAM had voted it down.

The IAM says, "We remain convinced that a comprehensive recovery plan can be a success, for United's employees, passengers and investors alike." Everyone can win, workers and investors! It's a ridiculous deception. The company is calling on the workers to make massive sacrifices. The wealthy creditors in bankruptcy court, in front of the judge and the legal system that fully backs them up, want their money back with no losses, that is, they want the workers to pay.

The only way for the workers to defend themselves is to fight to force the executives, the investors and creditors to make the sacrifices. The heads of the unions, including the IAM, are incapable of leading such a fight, since their goal is to remain a partner with the very management which is carrying out the attacks against the workers.

This attack on United workers is the opening gun of a new round of concession demands by all the companies. American Airlines has already demanded that its workers give up a three% raise because of what's going on at United. And behind the airlines, stands every other boss waiting to see how far down workers can be pushed. The entire working class has every interest in fighting off these attacks.