A Federal Judge Raises the Stakes For Labor

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You [Allied Pilots Association] pay for what you break, even if you can’t afford it.

-U.S. District Judge Joe Kendall

A federal judge reached into his judicial arsenal, pulled out a financial equivalent of a howitzer and took cold-blooded aim at the Allied Pilots Association: A bulls-eye!

The judge ruled that the union must now fork over $46 million to the Dallas Federal Court, reportedly a sum greater than the small union’s net worth.

The New York Times reported that the penalty “amounted to one of the largest assessments ever made against a union.” A labor-relations specialist told The Times, “This fine is really unprecedented in American labor history and represents a level of accountability for unions that’s never really been applied.”

The judge gave the union four days to deposit $10 million in escrow, and then the judge will decide if the fine will be paid in full by the union or shared by the union’s leaders.

In February, American Airlines asked the judge to order the union to pay a “coercive fine,” and to hold the union in contempt of his injunction ordering the pilots to end their sick-out. Over a period of 10 days, as many as 2000 pilots had called in sick for at least one day, when American Airlines refused to follow the contract and raise the pay of 300 pilots from a newly bought airline.

Without the right to strike, talks with the company got nowhere-so frustrated pilots started calling in sick, which the contract permitted. “Many pilots are also worried,” The Times reported at the time, “that if the union does not take a stand now, it will have set a dangerous precedent if American acquires an even larger airline in the future.”

Judging by the press, AFL-CIO head John J. Sweeney is keeping mum about the humongous fine. At least, he’s not sharing his thoughts with the nation’s 17 million unionists, who clearly have as much at stake in the injurious fine against the pilots as they did in the defeat of the 1981 air controllers’ strike.

Sweeney has had since February to get to the media and raise hell about a political set-up that runs interference for an industry Goliath at workers’ expense.

Sweeney and the AFL-CIO Executive Council have had plenty of time to come up with a game plan that would get the pilots the protection and solidarity of a unified labor movement and maybe turn this fresh escalation of the bosses’ war against workers and their unions into a something good-like lemons into lemonade.

Of course, it’s a bit daffy to even dream that the head of the AFL-CIO might take an action that would be unprecedented in the lifetime of most of today’s workers.

But please remember that back in 1995 Sweeney proclaimed that “the crisis facing American workers and their families requires an unprecedented response from America’s unions.”

Surely the judge’s unprecedented confiscation of members’ dues money warrants an unprecedented action led by organized labors’ top leadership. And as union militants said during the PATCO tragedy, if not now, then when?

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