As Reported By Ted Reed for Forbes
As Congress prepares to approve a $2 trillion stimulus bill to mitigate the financial impact of the corona virus, airline labor unions appear to have achieved unprecedented success in extending its protections to their workers.
The bill provides $31 billion in direct grants to pay as many as 750,000 airline industry workers, many but not all union members, through Sept. 30. Of the total, $25 billion is allocated for passenger airlines, $4 billion for cargo airlines, and $3 billion for contractors, including those who employ caterers and airport workers, according to the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO.
Additionally, the bill provides $25 billion in loans or grants to the airline industry.
“After the Gulf War, people got laid off with almost no salary protection,” said Joseph Tiberi, chief of staff for the transportation department of the International Association of Machinists. “After 9/11, people got laid off with almost no salary protection.
“That’s what would be happening right now, if it wasn’t for all of the furious lobbying by the labor movement,” Tiberi said. “To have the protection that’s in this bill, where airline employees can feel secure in their employment at least through the end of September, is amazing and unprecedented.”
The protections are unique to the airline industry, heavily impacted by the corona virus, but also the most heavily unionized major U.S. industry. At American Airlines, United Airlines and Southwest Airlines, three of the four largest airlines, between 80% and 85% of the workforce is unionized. Nationwide, about 11% of the workforce is unionized.
Throughout the effort to ensure labor protections in the bill, Sara Nelson, president of the 50,000-member Association of Flight Attendants, has been the public face of the labor movement, appearing regularly on television in addition to lobbying intensely. She said AFA staff submitted a framework that helped form the basis for legislation originally written by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
“The concept was that this would be grants to be used for pay and benefits only,” Nelson said. “This is the principle that all of labor agrees on. We wanted to keep people on the payroll, to give money directly to people.
“This is an unprecedented win for frontline aviation workers and a template all workers can build from,” Nelson said. “The grants we won in this bill will save hundreds of thousands of jobs and will keep working people connected to healthcare.”
Nelson noted the bill includes every segment of the airline industry – not just airline employees but also caterers and airport workers — cleaners, janitors, wheelchair providers and security guards.
Many people in Washington – legislators and lobbyists for business as well as labor – worked a series of 24-hour days in the past week, seeking to assure their priorities would be included in the bill.
For labor, a series of problems emerged. At times during the week of negotiation on the bill, which had to move from the transportation committee to the full House, to the Senate and back, some suspected that caterers and airport workers might not be included.
Another issue, which prompted deep concern on Wednesday, was that language in the bill would have enabled the treasury secretary to demand unlimited changes in existing contract agreements if airlines were to receive federal loans. Legislative staff members from IAM and the Transport Workers Union worked late into the night Wednesday to eliminate the provision.
Unite Here, which represents catering workers, had also sought health care improvements, but they were blocked in the Senate, which imposed Hyde Amendment provisions that severely restricts the use of federal funds for abortion.
Nevertheless, the union was able to ensure pay protection for 22,000 catering workers, including the 20,000 it represents. Still, “At a time of a global pandemic, too much of the healthcare needs of Americans remain on the cutting room floor,” said D. Taylor, Unite Here president, in a prepared statement.
Service Employees International Union represents 125,000 airport workers including wheelchair operators, janitors, cleaners and security workers.
“Today 125,000 contracted airport workers finally got some good news amidst weeks of stress, fear and uncertainty,” said Kyle Bragg, president of 32BJ SEIU, said in a prepared statement. “Congress recognized their vital role in the airline industry and their humanity during the coronavirus crisis and explicitly included $3 billion in the bailout for the contracted workforce.”
Thursday morning, IAM General Vice President Sito Pantoja said, “The IAM’s legislative team has been working around the clock, seven days a week since this crisis began with specific instructions that their priority was to advocate for our members’ jobs.”
Pantoja laid out the changes labor made in the airline industry’s original proposal. That included pay protection — “Before labor’s input it was only a loan program,” he said — and the concept that grant funds are exclusively for employee wages, salaries and benefits. “Before labor’s input, this provision did not exist,” he said.
Both IAM and TWU represents not only airline workers but also workers in other transportation sectors including public transit and railroads. In fact, 95% of TWU members have been classified as “essential employees.”
“The CARES Act comes at a critical time and provides a huge boost for our members, who have been working to keep the public safe for the last month at great risk to themselves and their families,” said TWU President John Samuelsen, in a prepared statement. “This bill helps to ease the financial hardship and uncertainty that our members have been facing during the pandemic. “
Lori Bassani, president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which represents American flight attendants, said, “We worked around the clock over the past 12 days on the stimulus package, (working) closely with our fellow unions at American airlines – IAM, TWU, APA, CWA and IBT – pushing as hard as it is possible for our members and our industry. Also, our union was in daily contact with American’s government affairs team.
“The air carriers would not have gotten the complete package without the support from organized labor – it’s that simple,” Bassani said.