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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 Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.

Unions, Progressives To Launch Wall St. Reform Drives This Week

Unions and progressive coalitions are seeking to add grass-roots organizing power to President Obama’s calls for financial reform, with stepped up activism from the AFL-CIO, Jobs for Justice and the progressive Americans for Financial Reform coalition all starting this week.

Following last week’s AFL-CIO convention that aimed to jump-start reform drives and the union movement, new president Richard Trumka and other leaders will be taking their case for economic reform to Wall Street and the  public. As the AFL-CIO Now blog reported:

The team’s tour continues Sunday and Monday in Atlanta, including a rally outside Wachovia, where Trumka will condemn its predatory financial practices, such as foreclosures. On Monday night and Tuesday, the team travels to New York City where Trumka will issue a strong warning to Wall Street at a press conference outside the New York Stock Exchange.

The goal: create a fairer economy that works for everyone, not just the wealthy.

On Thursday, the Jobs for Justice Coalition plans an action—one of many protests scheduled for over 20 cities over the next week—outside a meeting of the pro-banking Financial Services Roundtable in Washington, D.C., a key lobbying coalition opposed to the Administration’s proposed consumer financial protection agency, as well as other reforms.

As a Jobs for Justice press release proclaimed:

Thousands expected to participate in over a dozen cities to mark the one-year anniversary of the bank bailouts.

Nearly a year after Congress authorized hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out the financial industry, major banks continue to pay outrageous salaries and bonuses, drive layoffs and foreclosures, and spend millions lobbying against the interests working people.

Rallies across the country will condemn the “bailout bandits” and “corporate criminals” at Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup and Wells Fargo.

Actions will take place in at least 21 cities, and new cities are being added every week. See below for local contacts and find an up to day list of actions at www.jwj.org/recovery.

There are good reasons for all the anger. But it has has yet to lead to a massive public outpouring for progressive reform, as opposed to the corporate-abetted “Tea Party” events that also decry bailouts along with healthcare reform, while leaving the current toothless oversight of the financial industry in place.

Even though federal officials allowed a free-spending set of bailouts with no requirements and little oversight, virtually nothing has been done to make sure the money isn’t wasted and is spent in ways that benefit the economy. Indeed, nobody really knows how the $700 billion in bailout funds was actually spent.

So while inside-the-beltway analysts claim that Obama has an uphill fight in Congress, out-of-control banks and  Wall Street firms are now squandering taxpayers’ funds while returning to trading in risky investments. And credit is still largely frozen, worsening the “jobless recovery.”

As the Media Consortium summed up in its year-later review of the Wall Street collapse:

While workers experienced increasing pressure on their pocketbooks, Wall Street gambled away their retirement investments. Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy one year ago today, a move which created chaos in the financial sector and heavy damage in the rest of the economy. Things were looking bad for the economy before Wall Street imploded, but the financial crisis made those problems a lot worse.

“In a modern society, a credit freeze means instant death to the real economy, since virtually every enterprise, big and small, runs on credit,” Les Leopold explains for In These Times. “When the financial sector froze, it pushed the real economy off a cliff.”

But incredibly, after a year marked by massive financial bailouts, not one new law has been signed to protect our economy–and taxpayers–from Wall Street. Not one.

Even the modest plans to rein in executive pay for taxpayer-supported companies have proved toothless. Leopold notes that President Barack Obama’s refusal to crack down on the banks has left both the financial regulatory process and other important progressive plans–like overhauling the broken health care system–in a precarious political state. The largesse we have shown for bailed-out bankers gives conservatives ammunition against other, more productive activities.

Read more at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/the-media-consortium/weekly-audit-one-year-aft_b_287290.html

Perhaps the biggest promoter of refom, outside of the president himself, is the potentially influential coalition of 200 labor, consumer and  progressive groups, Americans for Financial Reform. It is planning grassroots actions while working with federal and state government officials to promote greater oversight of the financial system.

Indeed, to shore up support for administration proposals to rein in risky  investments, limit pay and offer a new consumer protection agency — all facing stiff industry opposition — the Treasury Department is reaching out to likely consumer allies, including the AFR organization.

So while some progressives and experts, including former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, remain skeptical about how committed this administration is to truly reforming a broken financial system, Bloomberg News reports that

Treasury Department officials are meeting with consumer allies to build support for a regulations overhaul for Wall Street as President Barack Obama ramps up a campaign to win legislation by year’s end.

The Treasury roundtables have been largely unpublicized, by invitation only and billed by some Democratic lawmakers as consumer-protection forums. The audiences are drawn in part from the rolls of a consumer-advocacy coalition that is pushing the legislation. They are designed to channel public anger at Wall Street and sidestep the financial industry, which is fighting to block the measure…

Audiences for the events are drawn largely from the membership of Americans for Financial Reform, a coalition of more than 12 dozen consumer, labor and civil rights groups that joined this year to push for oversight. The coalition includes the Service Employees International Union and the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.

Illinois Roundtable

The group will hold its next roundtable in Aurora, Illinois, on Sept. 21. State Attorney General Lisa Madigan will lead the session, and the group has invited Representative Bill Foster, an Illinois Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee.

Another non-profit group, Boston-based American Business Leaders for Financial Reform, is recruiting corporate executives to make the case for legislation. Tim Duncan, a Republican and founder of advisory firm Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Story Street Investment Management, created the organization after a conversation with Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard Law School professor who oversees the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

“There are a lot of people in the industry who realize reform is needed,” Duncan said in a telephone interview. “I’m surprised at the knee-jerk reaction industry is taking.”

But long-time observers of the financial industry aren’t suprised that a major battle lies ahead—and unions hope to play a leading role in pushing for reform.

And yet if this drive for reform falters, the fate of the entire economy is at stake. As Robert Reich described the risks we’re now facing:

Put simply, the Street has been given too many opportunities to play too many games with other peoples’ money.

But, like the health care industry, Wall Street has platoons of lobbyists and an almost unlimited war chest to protect its interests and prevent change. And with the Dow Jones Industrial Average trending upward again — and the public’s and the media’s attention focused elsewhere, especially on health care — it will be difficult to summon the same sense of urgency financial reform commanded six months ago.

Yet without substantial reform, the nation and the world will almost certainly be plunged into the same crisis or worse at some point in the not-too-distant future. Wall Street’s major banks are already en route to their old, dangerous ways — now made more dangerous by their sure knowledge that they are too big to fail.

About the Author: Art Levine is a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly who has also written for The American Prospect, Alternet, In These Times, Salon, The New Republic, The Atlantic and numerous other publications. He’s written investigative articles on unionbusting and other corporate abuses, and recently completed Cornell University’s Strategic Corporate Research summer program. He blogs regularly for Huffington Post, and co-hosts a weekly Blog Talk Radio show, “The D’Antoni and Levine Show,” every Thursday at 5:30 p.m. ET.

This article originally appeared in Working In These Times on September 20, 2009. Re-printed with permission from the author.

Bailout Oversight Panel: Some Banks Still Vulnerable to Collapse

Nearly a year after the $700 billion bailout of the nation’s financial system began, banks—especially regional and smaller banks—are still threatened by the billions of dollars in bad loans on their balance sheets. More could fail if the economy worsens, according to a new report from the Congressional Oversight Panel (COP), which oversees the spending of the bailout funds.

The Continued Risk of Troubled Assets,” released today, warns that if unemployment rises sharply or the commercial real estate market collapses, the banking system could again nosedive into a crisis.

In the report, the panel says:

The financial system [remains] vulnerable to the crisis conditions that [the bailout] was meant to fix.

The report says many of the Obama administration’s financial stability efforts are working—including infusions of new capital for banks, heightened scrutiny of capital ratios and “stress-testing” of large financial firms.

But the way the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds have been spent has placed some banks in danger, COP says. TARP was originally proposed as a plan to buy bad mortgage-backed loans from ailing banks. But by the time the program was signed into law in October 2008, the Treasury Department had decided to go in another direction and use the money to provide banks with a capital buffer and to build reserves. That left many of the bad loans on the books.

According to the COP:

These steps have…allowed the banks to take significant losses while building reserves. Nonetheless, financial stability remains at risk if the underlying problem of toxic assets remains unresolved.

Small banks are especially vulnerable, the report says. Most of their bad loans are not covered by the Treasury Department’s main program for buying up bad assets. In addition, the report says, regional and smaller banks hold greater numbers of commercial real estate loans, “which pose a potential threat of high defaults.”

You can read the full report here.

The COP, which includes Damon Silvers, AFL-CIO associate general counsel, is charged with reporting on the Treasury Department’s effort to stabilize our nation’s financial system and make recommendations to improve it.

The COP has issued monthly reports since January, finding among other things that the Treasury Department has not produced a plan for restoring lending to consumers, questioned the overall plan to rescue the financial industry and raised concerns about the administration’s plans to stem foreclosures.

James Parks: My first encounter with unions was at Gannett’s newspaper in Cincinnati when my colleagues in the newsroom tried to organize a unit of The Newspaper Guild. I saw firsthand how companies pull out all the stops to prevent workers from forming a union. I am a journalist by trade, and I worked for newspapers in five different states before joining the AFL-CIO staff in 1990. I also have been a seminary student, drug counselor, community organizer, event planner, adjunct college professor and county bureaucrat. My proudest career moment, though, was when I served, along with other union members and staff, as an official observer for South Africa’s first multiracial elections.

This article originally appeared at AFL-CIO Blog and is reprinted here with permission from the source.

Voters rebel at ‘fat cat’ bailouts

Do not bail out the fat cats.

Voters made that perfectly clear, and their re-election-obsessed congressional representatives took heed.

Delaying a Wall Street bailout wasn’t wise for the international economy, but chalk up points for the worker bees.

They finally got someone’s attention in Washington!

Nobody bails me out if I make bad financial decisions.

And, while we’re at it: No more multi-million-dollar parachutes for executives who mismanage other people’s money.

How quickly the “bailout” became a slightly more politically palatable “rescue.”

Note to Congress:

You’ve noticed that “trickle down” hasn’t worked very well lately, haven’t you?

Average CEO compensation last year was 275 times that of average U.S. worker pay, based on average hourly pay for about 80 percent of the U.S. workforce (the folks who actually produce the products and services that make companies work).

In a single work day last year, a typical big-company CEO earned as much as one of those workers did in their entire 260-day work year.

The well-paid corporate compensation consultants counterpunched, of course, telling Congress not to “handcuff” companies by putting limits on executive pay. They said pay ceilings will hurt companies’ ability to attract top talent.

Yeah. It’s been working so well.

It’s over-reaching the cure to demand a shareholder vote on top-exec compensation. But as the nation works through this financial crisis, the folks in the trenches must be heard.

Enough is enough.

Executives who earned more than they were worth to start with should not, by all that is right and just, be rewarded when they leave behind organizations littered with pink slips.

And have you looked at the value of your 401(k) this week?

Ouch. The only trickle-down there is the sound of assets swirling down the drain.

And where is the call for privatizing Social Security now?

Not exactly an election-time winner this go-around, huh?

Yes, the economy is cyclical. Has been. Will be. But the hurt on the downsides must be shared.

Unless legislators do what corporate compensation committees haven’t had the backbone to do, most of working America will continue to suffer from the greedy mistakes of a few.

Regulation? In this case, bring it on.

Unlimited executive greed has severed people from jobs and jobs from the economy. It’s gnawed away retirement security and college education funds in hard-working families.

And the architects of this economic collapse?

Greet them if you’re ever in Sun Valley…or Aspen…or Tuscany…or…

About the Author: Diane Stafford is the workplace and careers columnist at The Kansas City Star. A veteran journalist, she has held several reporting and editing positions at The Star on both the business and metropolitan desks. Currently, she writes columns that appear in The Star on Thursdays and Sundays as well as other business and economic news articles throughout the week, accessible at www.kansascity.com. Her daily “Workspace” blog also is available at www.workspacekc.typepad.com. She is the author of “Your Job: Getting It, Keeping It, Improving It, Changing It,” a career advice book. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in communications from Stanford University.

Cross-posted at Workspace.

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