Inside the AFL-CIO
Issued Every Tuesday
Column #28 October 2, 2001

Airline Unions Insist Washington
Act Responsibly as Layoffs Loom

By Harry Kelber

Congress’ failure to include relief for furloughed airline employees in its $15 billion industry bailout package has the unions representing pilots, flight attendants, machinists and service staffs mighty upset. They’re more determined than ever to press Washington to ease the plight of tens of thousands of workers scheduled for layoffs.

House Republicans balked at providing emergency aid to airline workers, with Majority Leader Dick Armey dismissing their concerns as “not commensurate with the American spirit.” Union members are particularly outraged by a provision in the bailout package that permits CEOs and other top executives to continue collecting their exorbitant salaries.

Subsidizing the troubled airline industry while ignoring workers is an “unconscionable, divisive and economically irresponsible omission,” AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said. He noted that congressional leaders previously met with union leaders and assured them that easier access to unemployment benefits, job training and health insurance would be forthcoming.

Sonny Hall, president of the AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Dept., an umbrella group that represents 33 national unions in the aviation, railroad, maritime and mass transit industries, added: “Now that airlines have received a multi-billion dollar relief package, it is time to finish the job by providing basic protections to airline workers who are bracing for severe economic hardship in the wake of the terrorist attacks…While we remain committed to working with the Congress and the President to address the nation’s critical economic needs, we will not rest until an airline worker relief bill is enacted.”

The Assn. of Flight Attendants is lobbying for specific programs for laid-off workers that would include an additional 78 weeks of unemployment insurance, with no waiting period; coverage for 12 months of paid health insurance, and more funding for job training and placement services.

“It’s important that Congress show its appreciation for the work of flight attendants and other airline employees who are innocent victims of the nation’s economic crisis and the impact of the terrorist attacks,” said Dawn Deeks, an AFA spokeswoman.

The International Assn. of Machinists, faced with the prospect of 30,000 layoffs at Boeing and thousands more at major airlines, is mobilizing its members to press Congress for worker assistance programs. It wants a guaranteed 104 weeks of unemployment benefits; supplemental compensation and training/retraining programs; 18 months of guaranteed medical insurance; protection from creditors, and a pledge by the airlines to buy American goods and services.

The IAM also calls for the return of all overseas aircraft repair work. “Foreign aircraft repair stations should not perform work on any of our aircraft while a single U.S. aircraft technician is out of work due to the current crisis” said union Vice President Robert Roach Jr. “Aircraft orders from U.S. manufacturers should also be given top priority if pending orders are to be reconsidered.”

Meanwhile, some of the airlines, even as they anticipated the $15 billion bailout, asked employees to take cuts in pay and benefits. American Airlines, the nation’s largest carrier, at first said it could not afford to pay severance benefits to the 20,000 workers it will soon lay off. CEO Donald J. Carty urged workers to take voluntary cuts in pay, saying he would forego his salary for the rest of the year. (Carty’s salary last year was $772,500, plus a $1.4 million bonus.)

Under pressure from their unions, both American and Northwest Airlines quickly changed course. They dropped plans to invoke emergency clauses in their union contracts in order to deny severance benefits to thousands of workers. American hasn’t specified how much assistance it will offer, but Northwest said it will provide one to six weeks’ pay to those it lays off.

Northwest also cancelled plans to lay off 2,800 flight attendants after negotiating a furlough program with their union. Some 2,500 attendants who chose to take voluntary furloughs, mostly for five months, will now get unemployment insurance benefits while keeping their health benefits and travel privileges.

Unions haven’t given up on their efforts to get government assistance for laid-off airline workers. They’ve prevailed on Senate Democrats to include worker relief in the pending aviation security legislation, although the Bush Administration opposes the idea. Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer did, however, acknowledge that help for airline workers could be part of an economic stimulus package.

Since Congress is considering several proposals to stimulate the economy and encourage consumer spending, wouldn’t it make sense, morally and practically, to help out airline employees and thousands of other workers harmed by the Sept. 11 catastrophe?

“Inside the AFL-CIO” can be viewed at every Tuesday. Our “LaborTalk” column appears every Monday.

HomePublications Inside the AFL-CIOContact us