BY DAVID BERNT
Mechanics at United airlines, represented by the International Association of Machinists (IAM), are in a showdown with their employer over the settlement of a new contract. The mechanics authorized their union to strike in December by a margin of 99-1%, but so far have been denied their right to strike by presidential order.
The mechanics gave major concessions to United over the past 10 years; they are now behind mechanics at other major airlines in wages and benefits. The top wage at United is just one-third of the wage at American.
In 1994 the mechanics took a 9.7 percent pay cut and other cuts in benefits in exchange for the Employee Stock Ownership Program. Workers at United, as at Enron, are forced to buy shares of their employer’s stock and cannot sell it until they leave United, no matter how poorly the stock does. Since Sept. 11, United’s stock value has declined significantly, further eroding the living standards of its employees.
United laid off 20,000 workers after Sept. 11, and has since demanded that mechanics accept a wage freeze until the company records a profit. The mechanics, fed up with their declining living standards, have demanded wage increases comparable to what mechanics have received from other airlines. United claims that it can’t afford any wage increases, but workers don’t trust their cry of poverty.
United mechanics, like all airline and rail workers, are covered under the Railway Labor Act. The RLA contains several loopholes that employers and the state can use to deny workers the right to strike.
President Bush has used this to delay a strike at United by calling for a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) to make recommendations for a contract. The PEB recommended a pay increase for the mechanics, but only on the basis that it was unfair to ask them alone to make sacrifices for the company. Instead, the board advised United to give the mechanics a wage increase and then demand that all employees accept wage freezes.
By law, after the PEB issues its report, there is a 30-day “cooling-off” period, during which it is illegal for the mechanics to go on strike. If after 30 days the union and United have not come to a settlement, the workers are technically allowed to strike. However, Congress can impose an agreement on the workers at any time.
Since Bush has made it clear he won’t allow any airline strikes during his administration, the mechanics must be prepared to break a federal injunction against strikes in order to win back the wages and benefits they deserve. This will require broad support from the rest of the labor movement.