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Sara Nelson: Our Airline Relief Bill Is a Template for Rescuing Workers Instead of Bailing Out Execs

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Sara Nelson is the head of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA) and is widely considered to be a candidate for the next leader of the AFL-CIO. She gained prominence when she called for consideration of a general strike to end the government shutdown of 2019. Now, with the entire economy cratering in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, Nelson is working overtime to help craft a relief package for the teetering airline industry that keeps all employees on the payroll—a model she says can be “a template” for a national bill to give relief to all workers.

She spoke to In These Times on Wednesday about how to save the airline industry, what unions should be doing to save working people from devastation during this crisis, and the opportunities for radicalism that lie ahead.

A $50 billion airline rescue package is in the news. What should it look like? 

Sara Nelson: It has to be centered on workers. We have a plan that provides payroll subsidies to keep everyone on the payroll. That’s really important, because you have to keep everyone in their job, if not on the job. Payroll subsidy for not just the airlines, but also all the airport workers, is approximately $10 billion a month. For a three month package, that’s $30 billion. So $30 billion of the $50 billion is for maintaining payroll. 

What’s your sense of the likelihood of that happening? 

Nelson: This has already been incorporated into the House Democratic plan, and they’re working with us on a package that would provide these payroll subsidies, plus a direct loan from the government to the airlines, with certain requirements attached. So this is a relief package focused on workers, not a bailout. 

What are those requirements? 

Nelson: No stock buybacks. No executive bonuses. No dividends. No breaking contracts in bankruptcies. No spending money on busting unions [The AFA-CWA says Delta has continued to send out anti-union messages during the coronavirus crisis, prompting a response from the union]. And worker representation on boards. 

Tell me about what the politics have looked like in the negotiations around this

Nelson: We’re fairly aligned with the airline industry on continuing the payroll. There’s actually zero disagreement there. Do they like some of our conditions that we want to put on them? No. But they’re not all opposed. … By continuing that payment through private company payrolls, that connects people to their healthcare. It allows them to be assured that when we get on the other side of this, they still have their jobs. The benefits for the airline industry are they don’t have the administrative nightmare of checking people out of security sensitive jobs. Nobody’s talking about the reality of what it means to put people on furlough and lay them off. It’s a huge task. Once we eradicate this threat, our economy should be able to restart immediately if we do this right. 

Couldn’t the argument about continuing payrolls apply to many other industries right now? 

Nelson: Yes—our view is that this is a template for every other industry. If we get this right for the airlines, you can do the same things for retail, for example. Or hospitality. 

Should there just be a national bill that says we’re going to do this for everyone, rather than industry-specific programs? 

Nelson: There could be a national bill. The reason that it probably makes sense to do a specific bill for the airline industry is that there is a real need right now, and we can set a template and have the political momentum to get this done. If we don’t get this done this week, or early next week, the airline industry is burning cash at a rate so great that they won’t even be able to follow federal law, or maintain the payroll in a couple months, or weeks in some cases. 

What’s your best guess as to when this will be done? 

Nelson: Part of the problem we have right now is that a lot of people are about to hurt very badly. But this all happened so fast that it hasn’t completely sunk in. … One month ago, the airlines were celebrating the biggest profit in history. All of the airlines announced hiring tens of thousands people this year. Not only has all of that flipped on its head in 30 days time, but we’re talking about a complete halt of air travel.

We’ve seen this before. We know this maybe better than the rest of the country. It was flight attendants and pilots who died first on 9/11. In the wake of dealing with all that hurt, in the bankruptcies that followed, they took our pensions, slashed our pay, diminished our healthcare, cut our jobs—they put it all on our back, while they took executive bonuses and we had to deal with the loss of homes and cars, and stressed marriages, and telling our kids they had to do without. We know this, and it’s up close and personal still. We’re not going to let this happen again, and we’re not going to let it happen to the rest of the country. 

Should there be some coordinated union attack on this? Should every union be pushing their own industry’s response, or should there be one united front from unions? 

Nelson: Transportation unions got together and agreed on a set of principles. We are coordinated around what this relief needs to look like. We’ve been sharing that through the AFL-CIO, and the labor movement has some core principles here that are aligned. The ideas around it are focused on the ability to attack the virus. So that means immediately paid sick leave, that means the ability to stay home with continued paychecks, that means getting relief to people as soon as possible, that means focusing on the resources that we need to get to people on the front lines to protect themselves. Keeping the paychecks going, and making this a worker-focused relief. 

On the offense, this is an opportunity to restructure the things that are wrong with our economy and with the financial system. This is an opportunity to put an end to stock buybacks. It’s an opportunity to say that we should be passing the PRO Act. … This crisis shows us how clearly Wall Street should not be setting the rules for our economy. 

It feels like our politics have just shifted very fast. What do you think the impact is going to be on the presidential election? 

Nelson: I think if labor leads on this message and this relief and this response, and we’re very clear that we have the solutions, then we have the opportunity on the other side of this to not only reshape policy, but also to inspire the American people to join unions in record numbers. If we do that, then no matter who is in office, we can shape the political momentum in this country to get real changes that help people. 

A lot of working people with and without unions are wondering what their leverage is at this moment, when layoffs are coming and everything feels tenuous. What’s the leverage? 

Nelson: Working people are gonna feel the hurt, and everyone is paying attention. Communications right now matters more than ever. Union communications, getting our message out into the mainstream, and pushing that by working with those who support a worker-focused relief, a.k.a. House leadership, is the way to promote that the labor movement is leading on getting results for people. People want to be part of a winning team—people want to be somewhere they can actually see results. This is a tremendous opportunity to show what the labor movement is about. 

And let me pull it back out for a second: This virus is a very clear metaphor for what we always say in the labor movement, which is “An injury to one is an injury to all.” It doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor, or where you come from. If a virus exists and we don’t do something about it, then we’re all at risk. 

When 90% of people don’t have unions, but 100% of people are in danger, will unions really be the vanguard for getting national relief? 

Nelson: We’re coordinated on that. There is a call for national relief, and there’s also a recognition that if you can’t do your job, I can’t do mine. So if one person is not able to return to work, if one person isn’t able to be protected, if one person doesn’t have the ability to safely shelter, then that continues the risk of the spread of the disease. There has to be national relief… In our view, we need to be setting a template that works for everyone else, and that’s what we can do. 

There are going to be areas where the template with the airline industry doesn’t work. There are going to be people who can’t stay on a payroll, and we have to help them too. But if we remove all the people who can just stay in the current systems that they’re in—it’s the easiest way to find out where we have other people that we haven’t addressed their needs, and then we can target that specifically. 

Is America going to like socialism more after this? 

Nelson: Every executive in America sounds like a socialist right now! 

I wonder if Joe Biden will sound like a socialist… 

Nelson: If we build up our political clout, and we can actually get things done, and we can actually provide a common narrative here, then we’re gonna move Biden to that narrative. We’ve already seen it happen. There’s tremendous movement that he’s already made from his political record on where he stands on particular issues, or how he’s talking about approaching the issues of today. And we’re not just gonna take him to his word—we’re going to hold him to it. But we can only do that by building our numbers and showing that we’ve actually got leadership and an ability to move forward.

This article was originally published at In These Times on March 19, 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporting fellow at In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at [email protected].


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American Airlines Mechanics Are Threatening the “Bloodiest, Ugliest Battle” in Labor History

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Mechanics at American Airlines are threatening to strike if a new contract isn’t negotiated, and the union president has declared that employees are prepared for the dispute to erupt into “the bloodiest, ugliest battle that the United States labor movement ever saw.” The statement comes just one day after the airline sued its union workers, claiming that they had engaged in an illegal work slowdown to strengthen their hand at the bargaining table.

American Airlines merged with US Airways in 2013 to become the largest airline in the world. The 31,000 mechanics who fixed planes for both airlines had existing contracts, but the merger didn’t produce a joint contract. American Airlines mechanics had contracts with the Transport Workers Union (TWU) and US Airways mechanics had contracts with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM). American Airlines has been trying to update the collective bargaining agreement with the TWU-IAM Association (a partnership between the two unions that developed as a result of the merger), through contract talks since December 2015, with the National Mediations Board serving as a federal mediator between the two sides. But talks were suspended in April after reaching an impasse. In addition to issues of pay and benefits, the union is concerned that the company is potentially looking to outsource thousands of jobs.

Timothy KIlima is an Airline Coordinator for the IAM who has been personally involved with the negotiations. “The employees represented by the TWU-IAM Association want to preserve the work they do, the healthcare they have and to reach parity in benefits between the two pre-merger workgroups,” he told In These Times via email. “American Airlines demands to reduce the amount of work performed by their employees and a corresponding headcount reduction; to eliminate the better healthcare choices the employees already have; and refuses to improve the profit sharing formula that is one of the worst among their peers. In short, the employees desire to grow with a healthy American Airlines but at least want to keep what they have coming into the merger.”

On May 20, American Airlines filed a lawsuit in the Northern District of Texas federal court claiming that mechanics have purposely slowed down their work in an effort to hinder the company’s day-to-day operations. According to the lawsuit, the mechanics’ actions have resulted in 650 flight cancellations and over 1,500 maintenance delays since February.

The union denies that there was ever a purposeful slowdown. “American Airlines should focus its time and effort to reach contractual agreements with its employees instead of falsely accusing them of trumped-up job action charges,” said Klima. “Collective bargaining agreements cannot be reached in courtrooms, in the media or by lobbying politicians. The TWU-IAM Association is eager to return to the bargaining table, which is the only arena where our contract disputes can be resolved.”

Vermont Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders also criticized the legal action, tweeting on May 21, “Instead of recognizing and addressing the concerns of workers, American Airlines has moved to sue @MachinistsUnion. Machinists keep passengers safe and on time. My message to American Airlines is simple: Stop the intimidation and bullying!”

On May 21, during one of the airline’s regular town hall meetings with employees at LaGuardia Airport, TWU president John Samuelsen confronted American Airlines president Robert Isom and told him that the union was prepared to strike. “I stand here to tell you—in front of this whole room, in front of everybody, anybody who’s listening—that you’re not going to get what you want,” said Samuelsen. “If this erupts into the bloodiest, ugliest battle that the United States labor movement ever saw, that’s what’s going to happen. You’re already profitable enough.”

Samuelsen also told Isom that workers are desperately trying to avoid what’s called a “self-help” situation under the Railway Labor Act. That means the company would be able to force employees into a contract without union approval if the government condones it. “If we ever get to a point where there’s self-help, we are going to engage in an absolutely vicious strike action against American Airlines to the likes of which you’ve never seen,” said Samuelsen. “Not organized by airline people, but organized by a guy that came out of the New York City subway system that’s well inclined to strike power, and who understands that the only way to challenge power is to aggressively take it to them. … We’re going to shut this place down.”

Isom replied, “I will tell you this, that anybody that seeks to destroy American Airlines, that is not going to be productive. It just won’t. We have to be able to work together to see the views of both sides. And I, believe me, I will send people back to the table.”

The airline industry has seen its share of labor unrest over the last few years, and workers have been able to celebrate a number of organizing victories. The American Airlines battle mirrors the recent fight between Southwest Airlines and the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA). In March, Southwest sued the AMFA and alleged that workers had participated in an illegal slowdown, but employees were ultimately able to win an agreement that established pay raises, new bonuses and an end to the legal dispute. Last year, JetBlue flight attendants voted to unionize, and in February the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA) helped end Trump’s government shutdown by threatening to strike.

Organizing efforts have been met with extreme resistance from the airlines beyond the aforementioned lawsuits. In February, The Guardian revealed that JetBlue president Joanna Geraghty sent employees an email warning that the company would cease to be successful if workers unionized. “So if anyone asks you to sign a card, I’m asking you to decline,” the email eads. This month, details of Delta’s union-busting campaign emerged, which included breakroom literature encouraging workers to spend their money on video games and alcohol rather union dues.

According to The International Air Transport Association, the airline industry is expected to generate net profits of $35.5 billion in 2019, better than the $32.3 billion netted in 2018. American Airlines is the world’s largest airline. Its parent organization, American Airlines Group, reported a fourth-quarter 2018 pre-tax profit of $387 million. “We expect our total revenue per available seat mile to grow faster than our network competitors, and to deliver strong pre-tax earnings growth in 2019,” the group said in a statement.

Last week, the TWU-IAM Association sent a letter to the National Mediation Board calling on the agency to compel further negotiations between the two sides, as the company has refused to engage in talks without a mediator. “These negotiations have reached the critical end stage with the largest scope and economic issues yet to be resolved,” reads the letter.

This article was originally published at In These Times on May 30, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Michael Arria covers labor and social movements.


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Flight Attendants Push for Equal Benefits for Domestic Partners

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Kenneth Quinnell
Kenneth Quinnell

Flight attendants who work for Spirit Airlines filed a lawsuit against the airline for reneging on a contractual commitment to provide equal benefits for all employees by forcing employees who want health care coverage for their domestic partners into a lower-quality health care plan than the plan covering other employees. The flight attendants, members of the Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA), said that management is using procedural loopholes to avoid providing equal benefits. Todd St. Pierre, the AFA-CWA president at Spirit, said:

We are outraged that management refuses to treat the families of their employees equally. At a time when equality issues have sparked a social awakening across our nation, management’s trampling on employees’ rights is deplorable. Their discriminatory behavior must be rectified immediately. Flight Attendants worked hard to ensure that these rights were included in our legally binding contract so that we could provide health care security for our loved ones. Shame on Spirit management for their blatant disregard for equality and for turning their backs on their obligations.

In a related story, aerospace manufacturer Boeing Co. said that despite the passage of a referendum legalizing gay marriage in Washington State—where Boeing has significant operations—they were not required to provide same-sex couples with benefits, including pensions. While Boeing publicly says they are evaluating what the referendum means to them, SPEEA/IFPTE Local 2001 executive director Ray Goforth said that Boeing officials explicitly told him that the benefits would not be extended to same-sex couples.

Alaska Airlines flight attendants, also members of AFA-CWA, issued a statement supporting members of SPEEA at Boeing in their fight for equal rights. Alaska AFA-CWA President Jeffrey Peterson said:

“AFA has a longstanding commitment to equality regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression which is why Alaska Flight Attendants stand in solidarity with our aviation colleagues at Boeing in their struggle for equal rights. With an all-Boeing fleet of aircraft, Alaska Flight Attendants depend on the professionalism and dedication of SPEEA members each and every day.

Voters in nine states across the nation have instructed their elected representatives to address marriage equality issues. Recently in Washington, all couples regardless of gender finally have the opportunity to legally marry. Yet, Boeing is refusing to recognize married couples equally.

We are all partners in the success of the aviation industry and we call on Boeing executives to provide equal benefits to all couples legally married under state law.”

This post was originally posted on AFL-CIO on January 14, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Kenneth Quinnell is a long-time blogger, campaign staffer and political activist.  Before joining the AFL-CIO in 2012, he worked as labor reporter for the blog Crooks and Liars.  Previous experience includes Communications Director for the Darcy Burner for Congress Campaign and New Media Director for the Kendrick Meek for Senate Campaign, founding and serving as the primary author for the influential state blog Florida Progressive Coalition and more than 10 years as a college instructor teaching political science and American History.  His writings have also appeared on Daily Kos, Alternet, the Guardian Online, Media Matters for America, Think Progress, Campaign for America’s Future and elsewhere.  He is the proud father of three future progressive activists, an accomplished rapper and karaoke enthusiast.


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