Let’s just say upfront that this is not a good time for the labor movement.
Membership has declined for decades; high visibility organizing campaigns in the South keep failing; few gains were made during the tenure of a moderately pro-union president and now an anti-union president, leading a virulently anti-union Republican party, holds power.
Still, this is Labor Day — and the success of the heavily unionized U.S. airline industry provides something to celebrate.
It’s not just that airlines are producing record profits and that their unions have ensured those gains are shared with workers.
It’s more than that. In 2017, unions and even some airline managements have worked to improve the lot of low-paid workers who serve passengers but work for third party vendors, not for the airlines themselves.
The most recent example came Aug. 30, when contractors employing about 1,400 passenger service workers at Philadelphia International Airport agreed to bargain with the Service Employees International Union.
These workers are baggage handlers, wheelchair attendants, aircraft cabin cleaners and sky caps. Many are paid minimum wage. For years, they have staged airport protests.
While U.S. airline industry wages and benefits have grown by $24 billion, or 46%, since 2010, according to industry trade group A4A, wages for these workers, as well as for airport kitchen workers, have barely moved.
SEIU said American encouraged the start of collective bargaining. “We commend American Airlines for bringing their contractors, PrimeFlight and Prospect, to the table and working towards an equitable resolution for all parties,” said 32BJ SEIU President, Hector Figueroa, in a prepared statement.
Also in the past year, the International Association of Machinists, the largest airline union, has organized more than 2,000 ground service workers at two leading providers: McGee Air Services, a newly formed subsidiary of Alaska, and United Ground Services, a United subsidiary.
These workers provide baggage and cargo handling and gate service at airports where individual airlines have too few flights to hire full-time staff. Again, pay has tended towards minimum wage. By contrast, at their hubs, most airlines employ their own ground service workers, mostly unionized.
One more example: This year, Unite Here has stepped up advocating for the 15,000 airport kitchen workers it represents. The workers prepare and deliver food served on airplanes. Though unionized, many earn minimum wage or close to it.
When the union demonstrated at American’s annual meeting in June, CEO Doug Parker offered encouragement, telling a protesting worker that higher pay is “something you have to take up with your employer.” Parker added, “I’m sorry [employer] LSG Sky Chefs has not gotten there yet.”
The airline industry’s non-union jobs “are almost all jobs that were airline jobs in days gone by,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents 50,000 flight attendants.
“Post deregulation, and during the bankruptcies, a lot of outsourcing took place,” Nelson said. “The pay and benefits were cut in half – or worse. They were cut to levels that were unsustainable.
“People can only live like that for so long,” she said. “They were working right next to people who have good jobs, so they had something to aspire to.
This is good for the airlines too,” Nelson said. Organized workers “are not falling asleep because they are working second or third jobs. They are engaged. This has a direct impact on airline passengers.
“You cannot make the airline experience a good one without helping all of the people who touch that experience,” she said.
Some labor people think Nelson should run for president of the AFL-CIO, which will elect officers in October. She too is engaged, she draws attention and she is not tired. Maybe she would pump some life into the labor movement.
Here we should mention that IAM spokesman Joe Tiberi disagrees with the first sentence of this story.
“I don’t know that this is a tough time for labor,” Tiberi said. “I don’t know that this current period is any different than any other. A bad time for labor? There’s never a good time.
“Several unions are more actively organizing now,” Tiberi said. “That’s a good thing.”
IAM is among the never-give-up unions. As such, it led one of 2017’s notable labor failures: In February, 74% of Boeing’s North Charleston, S.C. workers voted against unionization.
“Organizing in the South is always difficult, but it’s not impossible,” Tiberi said. “Sometimes it takes a little longer.”
Larry Willis, president of the AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department, said, “The massive wage disparity we see across the economy, where the rich are getting richer, creates fertile ground for the labor movement.
“There is a level of activism out there, a level of awareness out there, that we haven’t seen in a long time,” Willis said. “Airlines are making record profits — a lot of those profits are due in part to the hard work of our members – and those workers who don’t belong to unions want a piece of that pie.
“They understand they can do better with a union voice.”