By GERRY FIORI
Pilots at American Airlines staged a 10-day job action last month, including during the busy Presidents Day weekend, that forced the carrier to cancel over 6000 flights and affected more than 500,000 passengers.
The cost to American, the second largest U.S. airline, has been variously estimated at between $40 million and $100 million.
American’s 9200 pilots are represented by the Allied Pilots Association (APA), a non-AFL-CIO union. At the height of the job action, over 2400 were off the job.
The pilots’ action stemmed from American’s purchase of low-cost carrier Reno Air last December.
Reno was founded in 1992 as a cut-rate competitor to American, picking up routes American had abandoned in a period when it was losing money.
Since American was selling passenger frequent-flyer miles to Reno while it was cutting routes and laying off its own workers, the APA has always felt that American’s management was utilizing Reno to lower its own labor costs.
The Reno Air issue has been part of two decades of confrontational labor relations at American. A two-tier wage structure was introduced in the 1980s that the pilots managed to get removed for themselves after a decade of fighting. Management reneged on promises to restore concessions made in the 1990s to return the company to profitability, and is guilty of numerous contract violations.
In 1997, American’s pilots went on strike over the company’s scheme to shift routes and jobs to its low-cost subsidiary American Eagle. After six minutes, the strikers were ordered back to work by President Clinton, under a provision of the Railway Labor Act (the restrictive 1934 legislation that also covers the airlines).
The current conflict centered around Reno Air’s 300 pilots. The wage for a senior pilot at Reno is $65,000 a year, less than half that of a senior pilot at American ($150,000). According to contract, all aircraft owned by American must be flown by American pilots at American’s wage rates. The merger of Reno and American put Reno’s pilots under American’s contract provisions.
American’s management said they agreed with this, but claimed they will need 12-18 months to “integrate” Reno’s operations into American. At the same time though, they rejected a union proposal to give the pilots from Reno Air a pay raise over this period.
The APA suspects American wants to keep Reno as a cheaper, separate operation and shift work to it like the company tried to do with American Eagle. The union therefore demanded the complete integration of Reno into American and the immediate incorporation of Reno’s pilots into American’s workforce at American’s pay scale.
After five weeks of negotiations that got nowhere, the pilots at American began their slowdown action on Feb. 6. This included work-to-rule and refusing to work voluntary overtime (pilots at American are required to fly 78 hours a month; due to a shortage of pilots, the company relies on pilots flying an additional 10-15 percent over this figure).
The main tactic used, though, was a mass sickout. Under Federal Aviation Administration regulations, any airline pilot can take himself out of the cockpit if he is sick, overly stressed, or does not feel “fit to fly.” Utilizing these regulations, thousands of APA pilots excused themselves from work.
It should be noted that the various slowdown tactics mentioned above are means used by airline workers to circumvent the restrictive provisions of the Railway Labor Act, which makes it illegal to strike until a number of procedural hurdles have been cleared.
The RLA is designed to string matters out, diffuse workers’ anger and militancy, and give bosses time to prepare. Under this law, the president of the United States also has the authority to intervene to order strikers back to work and set up arbitration. American’s pilots were already subjected to this two years ago.
The effectiveness of the pilots’ sickout led to an increasing number of cancellations of American flights, which reached over half (close to 1200 of 2250 daily) by Feb. 11. At this point 2400 pilots were calling in sick, vs. the norm of about 400.
American went to federal court seeking an injunction, and on Feb. 10, U.S. district judge Joe Kendall issued an order for the pilots to return to work.
The union’s leadership complied with the judge’s order, calling on their members to return to work. At the same time, since the sickout was never an officially authorized action, they pointed out that they could not be held responsible for the actions of individual union members.
Judge Kendall’s injunction had the effect of leading to an actual increase in sickouts, as union members defied the court order. This included 12 of APA’s 18 Executive Board members.
On Feb. 13, Kendall issued a new ruling holding the APA in contempt of court, ordering $10 million of the union’s $38 million in assets to be set aside to pay damages to American, and hinting that more might be demanded.
In addition, APA President Rich LaVoy and Vice President Brian Mayhew were fined $10,000 and $5000 respectively. Further hearings are to be held to determine precise damages.
The judge’s language in his contempt ruling is highly instructive as an indication of the supposed role of judges in the capitalist court system as upholders of impartial justice.
After comparing the union to the Mafia, Kendall stated: “Unfortunately, the radical element that appears to be in control of the Allied Pilots Association seems determined to fly American Airlines into the side of the mountain, taking themselves, the company, their co-workers and their customers with them.”
Regarding the fines imposed, he said: “No one can make someone go fly an airplane, particularly if someone is dishonest and willing to lie and say they are sick when they really aren’t. But what a federal judge can do-and what I will do-is make people pay for what they break.”
In threatening punitive damages, his words were: “If the activity and consequent damages continue, when all the dust clears, all the assets of the union, including their strike war chest, will be capable of being safely stored in the overhead bin of a Piper Cub.”
This sort of arrogance and pro-company one-sidedness, combined with dictatorial arbitrary power, is why progressives in the union movement have always opposed “rule by injunction.”
The contempt ruling and accompanying threat of stripping the union of its assets finally had the effect of halting, and then reversing, the momentum of the sickout, as pilots began returning to work, though there was apparently a division within the pilot ranks over whether to stay out or not.
By Feb. 16, American had more or less returned to its normal schedule, though pilots were still working to rule and refusing voluntary overtime, forcing continuing cancellations of some flights.
The American pilots’ action takes place in a context of increasing confrontation between workers and bosses in the airline industry.
At Trans World Airlines, ground workers staged a systemwide walkout on May 1 last year, and flight attendants engaged in a sickout over the Christmas weekend. Pilots at Northwest went on strike for three weeks last September.
Mechanics at Northwest split from the International Association of Machinists to join the pro-company craft union AMFA, dividing the workforce in the midst of a two-year contract fight.
Similar efforts are being made in other airlines, directly or indirectly part of the airline bosses’ attack on their workers.
These efforts to undermine worker solidarity have been aided by the appeasement efforts of the IAM leadership toward the craft prejudices of skilled workers at Northwest and United.
All this comes in a situation where the airlines, which have been making record profits after gaining massive concessions from their workforces in the 1980s and early 1990s, are now beginning to face a crisis of overcapacity due to the growing world economic recession
More concessionary demands and more struggles are to be expected in the future.
The story at American itself remains to be resolved. In addition to punitive damages ordered by the court, civil lawsuits have been filed against APA by two groups of passengers affected by the sickout.
The issue of Reno Air and its pilots, the cause of the confrontation, has also not been settled, though negotiations are ongoing between the APA and American.
The pilots of American have given a warning to bosses everywhere, and an example to all workers of the potential power of the working class. All workers should study the strategic and tactical lessons to be learned from their action (both its strengths and weaknesses).
As working-class consciousness and class struggle grows, such lessons increasingly will be of practical value.
Gerry Fiori works for TWA and is a member of IAM Local 1056.