[By Jen DiMascio and Madhu Unnikrishnan in Aviation Week & Space Technology]
A bruising battle over a multi-year aviation policy bill may have settled a fight over how airline workers organize, but new fights over the rights of workers to form unions are on the horizon, as the presidential election is proving to be a referendum on organized labor.
Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s campaign may lack specifics in certain policy areas, but that cannot be said about labor policy. His platform contains eight different items geared toward bolstering the hand of management, including specifically supporting states in pursuing “right-to-work” laws.
With Romney’s support for states that allow for non-union shops, along with a history at Bain Capital of outsourcing jobs, transportation unions are launching a nation-wide grassroots campaign to reelect President Obama, whose administration helped American Airlines’ workers save their pensions.
“We think this is the biggest no-brainer election for anyone who works in transportation that we have ever seen,” says Ed Wytkind, president of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department. “If you read the Republican Party platform, it reads like a how-to manual of how to break unions.”
In a town hall meeting early this year, Romney accused the president of “paying back” organized labor by appointing “union stooges” to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). “The decision that Boeing can’t build a factory in South Carolina because it is a pro-worker, right-to-work state is simply wrong,” Romney said.
After the machinists union that had objected to the aerospace manufacturer’s moving work from Washington state reached a deal with the company that ensured jobs would remain in the Pacific Northwest, the NLRB dropped its case against Boeing.
According to his campaign materials, Romney would instead appoint to the NLRB “experienced individuals with respect for the rule of law.”
Romney’s campaign materials do not indicate he would specifically seek to relitigate the fight that brought the FAA to its knees for two weeks last summer over how airline and railroad workers unionize. But the Alliance for Worker Freedom, which is affiliated with Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, sees the dispute between American Airlines and the Allied Pilots Association as a reason for wading back into the fight over how airline and rail unions form under the National Mediation Board. “We find serious fault in the Railway Labor Act and would also like to see legislation that would give workers’ the right to spend money as they want, instead of having to pay dues to a union they do not want to be part of,” states the Alliance for Worker Freedom.
The bankruptcy at American Airlines has become a call to arms on both sides of the debate.
In filing for bankruptcy, American took advice on trimming labor costs from Romney’s former management consulting firm, Bain & Co. In November 2011, American tried to terminate worker pensions. After a fight with the Obama administration’s Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, those pensions have been frozen but remain viable.
The administration’s stance on the pension issue won the support of the flight attendants. But airline unions have worries beyond pensions. Of special concern to flight attendants is the perception that a Romney administration would unwind U.S. laws prohibiting foreign ownership and control of domestic airlines. This could result in the outsourcing of flight attendant jobs, says Veda Shook, Association of Flight Attendants/CWA (Communications Workers of America) president. Although cabotage regulations likely would prevent a foreign-owned U.S. carrier from employing a non-U.S. crew on domestic flights, international flights could be crewed by non-union, non-U.S. flight attendants, she adds. “We would lose some of our most lucrative routes to outsourced flight attendants.”
The unions are asking members to rearrange flight schedules in order to canvass in battleground states. That is part of a larger grassroots mobilization that includes talking to workers on the job and social media outreach.
The unions are also taking aim at vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget plans, noting that they cut funding for transportation. Ryan’s record also includes “gutting requirements” for ensuring that foreign aircraft repair stations operate under safe conditions.
And with airline mergers and global alliances forming, now is the time for unions to mobilize, Wytkind says. “You can’t create the economy that Romney wants to try to create without a robust aviation system that can move people and cargo efficiently.”