By GERRY FIORI
The workers of Trans World Airlines, the country’s eighth largest carrier, have been without a real raise since 1983. The 16,000 workers represented by the International Association of Machinists, 75 percent of the company’s employees, have given up an average of $100,000 each since 1992.
These concessions were supposedly necessary to keep the company from going out of business (TWA continues to exist despite claims to have turned a profit only once in 20 years).
Management’s promises to restore the givebacks once the company’s financial situation improved were reneged on at the first opportunity. In fact, the arrival in 1997 of a new management team led by Gerald Gitner (a protege of union buster Frank Lorenzo) heralded a new level of confrontational anti-union policies.
When the old contract expired on Sept. l, 1997, the company’s new proposals demanded the absolute right to eliminate, combine, and/or cross-utilize job classifications, contract out any and all work, sell off any assets, subdivide the company, and set up subsidiary companies flying so-called “regional” jets.
Maintenance facilities in New York, Kansas City, and Los Angeles, and one of the two terminals leased at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, were singled out for elimination, despite protective covenants existing from the last contract (and despite the fact that these facilities were being used as securities for loans from creditors).
In fact, as TWA continued to concentrate its operations in its hub, St. Louis, where it is the largest employer, the jobs of workers systemwide were at risk.
The company’s position was strengthened through the divide-and-conquer tactic of buying off the Air Line Pilots’ Association-the only other significant union aside from the IAM. ALPA leader Bill Compton was named TWA president in December 1997 and CEO in May 1999 (while Gitner became chairman of the board of directors).
In July 1998, ALPA and TWA signed a new contract, which included a 40 percent wage increase for the pilots over four years. Two small unions soon reached their own agreements. This left only the IAM to deal with.
The leadership of District 142 of the IAM has been largely responsible for the condition of their membership, having colluded for years with management to extract concessions “to save the company.”
The new and obvious threat from Gitner and Compton, however, seemed to have finally opened their eyes, and they took up a militant posture in negotiations, declaring “the concession stand is closed’.
The company’s attitude throughout negotiations was completely unserious and in bad faith. However, due to provisions of the Railway Labor Act (which also applies to airlines), the union was hampered by being given a whole series of hoops to jump through before it could have legal recourse to strike action.
Despite an obvious impasse having been reached, the federal mediator overseeing the talks refused to release the parties to the 30-day countdown to “self-help” until May 11, 1999, one year and eight months after negotiations began.
Workers reject offer, authorize strike
On May 28, TWA presented its “final” offer to the IAM, saying take it or leave it. The company’s proposed contract, to expire in 2002, included:
1) Raises of 18 percent for mechanics and higher classifications, 9.6 percent for related classifications below mechanic (ramp service, fleet service, janitor, guard, etc.), 14.1 percent for passenger service employees (ticket agents), and 26.7 percent for flight attendants.
The last of three wage hikes would be contingent on TWA’s reaching a target operating profit margin. Pay raises would not be retroactive.
2) Lump sum payments of $4600, $4100, $2100, and $5000 for the respective employee groups.
3) The flight attendants only would receive payment of the “Me Too” grievance.
(This refers to a provision of the last contract in which any raise given to one classification would have to be given to all. The company was taken to court by the flight attendants when it granted non-contract employees an 8.5 percent raise, and lost. All IAM classifications should have been entitled to the same award.)
4) Company contribution to the IAM national pension plan of $.50 per hour worked.
5) Regional jets to be introduced, according to arrangements agreed to by ALPA, not the IAM.
6) The company agreed to “work to obtain” leases at a terminal and maintenance hangar at New York, and a hangar at Kansas City.
The company pushed hard for this offer with a barrage of propaganda letters sent to workers’ homes, praising the offer, claiming there was absolutely no more money to give, and threatening dire consequences if the offer was rejected.
But the union leadership responded within a few days, calling for the membership to reject the company’s offer.
In a special bulletin, they pointed out that the company’s offer contained substantially less in wages than what the pilots got, that wage and benefit increases were distributed usually to different classifications, that there were no protective covenants over facilities in dispute, and that the regional jet clause would allow a third party to operate TWA routes without TWA employees and with no limit to the number of planes.
They said they would hold out for nothing less then industry-standard wages, full protective covenants, no less than $1 per hour in the pension plan, and no loss of jobs.
Ratification votes were held June 8-9 systemwide for the flight attendants, who vote by mail, which takes a month. By June 9, though, the stance of District 142’s leaders, combined with the determination of the membership not to give in to the company again, resulted in a vote of 90 percent to reject TWA’s offer and to authorize a strike.
The next day, company negotiators got in touch with the union, as did Dick Gephardt, congressman from St. Louis and Democratic Party leader of the House of Representatives. On June 13, a tentative agreement was reached.
Anger swells as victory turns into defeat
After nearly two years of negotiations, and many more years of givebacks, the workers sensed that their determination to stand up had finally paid off, and victory, a contract they could afford to live on, was finally at hand.
But once the details of the agreement became known, the hope turned into disbelief, then anger. This was because a strange transformation had taken place.
The leaders of the union, who had led a two-year crusade against concessions, who had orchestrated work stoppages and sickouts, who had said they would settle for nothing less than what their members deserved, who had obtained that membership’s solid backing to go on strike if necessary, had completely reversed themselves.
The tentative agreement was to be 18 months long, from Aug. 1, 1999, until 2001, completely conceding retro pay (and rewarding the company’s intransigence in negotiations). Details include:
1) Wage raises of 11.7 percent for all job classifications except flight attendants, who would receive 21.3 percent due to the 8.5 percent “Me Too” award, which would be waived by the rest of the IAM.
2) Lump-sum payments (out of a separate grievance settlement) of $1000 for ramp service and above, $500 for classifications below, and $1000 for those who retired between the end of the last contract and the beginning of the new one.
3) Company contributions to the IAM national pension plan of $1 hour for mechanics and above, and $.75 per hour for others.
4) Regional jets to be introduced with set limits of jets, operated by TWA, subsidiaries, or partners.
5) The company to agree to “work to obtain” leases for the New York and Kansas City facilities.
6) The union to agree to the company opening up “focus stations,” which would be non-union over reviewable six-month period for purposes of “competitive” expansion. (The first is to be San Juan and is already being heavily funded by the government of Puerto Rico).
This deal was sold by the union leadership as being necessary because the company had no more money to give (despite what they had said only days before) and that this was the only way to save everyone’s job.
In reality, it represented the worst betrayal of rank-and-file Machinists who had shown themselves willing to take the fight to the end and believed their officials would be willing to lead them.
The worst part of the agreement is that, for all the concessions it makes, it offers no guarantees of saving any jobs at all. The disputed facilities may in fact never be leased, and would have no protective covenants anymore in any case.
(This is leaving aside the question of the second New York terminal, which was dropped by the union without gaining anything in return).
The regional jets may be operated by nonunion commuter affiliates, or by subsidiaries with separate, probably substandard IAM contracts (dues money in any case). These jets can ultimately displace TWA operations directly or indirectly, especially at hub cities, leading to loss of jobs.
The focus station concept leaves itself open to enormous abuse by the company, including shifting operations there from unionized stations.
Everything depends on the trustworthiness of TWA management, who have already amply demonstrated the opposite.
This is all leaving out the issue of the 14 stations that would be closed, something withheld from the membership in official union materials.
The ratification meetings for the tentative agreement, held two weeks after the final offer meetings, were extremely tumultuous, as workers one after the other expressed their outrage at being so cheaply sold down the river by those they had believed were finally doing the right thing.
Union spokespeople were unable to answer pointed questions from the ranks and in the end resorted to scare tactics, saying that any contract improvements would come only through job losses and work rule concessions.
As of the date of this writing, all the votes have yet to be counted. As far as is known, New York and Kansas City have overwhelmingly rejected the agreement; St. Louis, Los Angeles, and San Francisco have approved it.
The overall vote looks to be close. Regardless of the outcome, though, the Machinists of TWA have learned at least two valuable lessons:
The first is that their “leaders” are self-serving bureaucrats only interested in preserving their own privileges, and afraid to wage a real fight.
The second is that the rank and file have already demonstrated that they can unite to fight, and that their power is in that unity and the willingness to use it.
Where leaderships will not lead, they must step aide or be swept aside and replaced by fighters. All fighting Machinists should come together now, and organize to build a movement within the union capable of waging the honest struggle we all know is necessary.
Gerry Fiori works at TWA and is a member of IAM Local 1058, New York.