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Workers of the Skies Unite!

category north america / mexico | workplace struggles | other libertarian press author Friday June 16, 2006 10:22author by Kdog - Twin Cities IWW GMB Report this post to the editors

The 2005 Northwest Airlines Strike

Our perspective... was simple: “What will it take to win this strike?”
It seemed to us that the strike had to impede NWA’s ability to operate, it had to start hurting the company. It had to spread to the others sectors of workers at the airports... It had to become an issue of concern and attention for working people generally. It had to create a crisis for the larger capitalist class beyond the NWA board and large stockholders.


Workers of the Skies Unite!

The 2005 Northwest Airlines Strike

by Kdog
NorthStar Anarchist Collective
Twin Cities IWW GMB
(personal capacity)


In August 2005 the mechanics and cleaners at Northwest Airlines (NWA), the world’s fourth largest passenger airline went out on strike. The workers were rejecting the company’s final offer of massive concessions, including 53% job cuts, 26% wage reductions and sharp cuts to their benefits and pensions.

This battle is in response to a new round of attacks by the old large industrial corporations, such as the Airlines and Automakers against their heavily unionized and relatively better-off workers. Out-sourcing (reducing unionization), and sharp scaling back of pay, benefits, and pensions are the general thrust, part of their drive to make US workers more “competitive” with the rest of the world. The enormous power and prestige these brand name corporations have means these attacks set the tone and establish the trend for all class relations in the US. As the necessary norm for doing business in the global market.

Today’s unions for the most part accept the logic of the capitalist market and are completely out of practice of any kind of militant struggle. This poses the question how are workers going to be able to resist these attacks, and how are we as revolutionary anarchists and class partisans going to be able to best aid our sisters and brothers given our extremely limited size, resources, and influence? Let’s look at this strike and try and draw out some lessons so far.

AMFA

The mechanics, cleaners and custodians at NWA are represented by AMFA, the Airline Mechanics Fraternal Association, a sort of do-it-yourself craft union that for years barely existed at the margins of the industry. Up thru the nineties, the mechanics at Northwest were represented along with the baggage handlers and ticket agents by the International Association of Machinists (IAM). But sick of continuous concessionary contracts negotiated by the IAM, and confident in the leverage created by their skill-set the mechanics along with the cleaners and custodians struck out on their own becoming the first major work group from one of the big airlines to affiliate with AMFA.

Generally we should support industrial, not craft unionism. There were also some conservative reasons why the mechanics at NWA went to AMFA. But it should not be a surprise to us that in the absence of any clear class pole - like the IWW of old for instance - workers will try and find something, anything, that gives them some independence from the business as usual of the mainstream unions. In the same way that the P-9 meatpackers of Austin, MN in the ‘80’s grasped onto Ray Rogers’ “Corporate Campaign”, the mechanics at NWA grabbed onto AMFA.

AMFA its self is a bit of a trip. Headquartered not in Washington, New York, or Detroit but in a small town in New Hampshire. Run out of a law firm, and headed up by a crusty old airline mechanic called O.V. Delle-Femine, AMFA is not your typical U.S. union. While AMFA regrettably relies on lawyers for its negotiations, it has no real bureaucracy to speak of. It’s small number of officers are either still working or fresh from the shop floor.

Rather then being a layered hierarchy of useless and interfering bureaucrats, AMFA had if anything a problem going the other way. A kind of “Tyranny of Structurelessness”. There was little internal organization to the strike, meaning every problem, question, and opportunity was thrust to the new local president. There was never any effective democratic procedure for running the strike, like weekly mass meetings and/or an elected strike council of delegates to discuss and implement strategy. Folks were very much winging it.

But I never saw any bureaucratic interference or undemocratic methods used to silence or police the strikers. In fact it was amazing how little “cushion” separated the negotiators from the active core of the strike. One example: a few weeks into the strike, the AMFA negotiators were discussing bringing back a new, worse NWA offer to the membership to vote on. When some of the more active strikers herd about this they were livid and began personally calling the AMFA national leadership and negotiators on their cell phones and demanding that this not happen. At one point a pissed off steward started physically threatening the negotiating team, while others used less violent but still firm reasoning. The negotiators were forced to pull the idea. It is unthinkable to think of local rank & file activists and officers being able to effect national negotiations like that in the Teamsters, UAW, or IAM for instance.

AFL-CIO Treachery

AMFA is not affiliated to the AFL-CIO. Apparently still smarting from the workers exodus from the IAM, the federation did all it could to undermine AMFA during the strike. The AFL actually sent a letter to every metro labor council in the country ordering the unions to refuse any support to AMFA. This had a very chilling effect on solidarity efforts. In concrete terms it meant that even raising simple motions for a donation at your local union’s meeting would be opposed by most union officials. It meant that no wider mobilizations of official labor solidarity would be possible. It created a huge obstacle to reaching the constituency that would be most naturally supportive of AMFA’s struggle.

Of course this exile from the House of Labor, also gave a certain openness to the struggle that would not have existed otherwise. Many rank and file AMFA workers were not only acutely aware of the “corporate” enemy, but also had a pretty sophisticated understanding of the problems with the labor “movement”. With no AFL-CIO support there was not the usual bureaucratic control of the grassroots, the legalism, and electoralism. We found thru the IWW that we were able to easily (surprisingly easily) enter into pretty serious strategic discussions with Local 33’s officers and activist core, make proposals and plan some significant action.

Direct Action

NWA is headquartered in Minneapolis-St. Paul, and it’s largest hub is at the Twin Cities international airport. AMFA’s largest base, Local 33, is in the Twin Cities. From the beginning of the strike, Twin Cities anarchists have been in solidarity. During the first days of the strike, members of Northstar Anarchist Collective did three banner drops over one of the main interstates going out to the airport. Most of our activity has been as members of the newly formed Twin Cities IWW.

Our perspective, which we continually tried to hit home, at the solidarity committee meetings, at the unofficial action group meetings, and at rallies and the picket line was simple: “What will it take to win this strike?”

It seemed to us that the strike had to impede NWA’s ability to operate, it had to start hurting the company. It had to spread to the others sectors of workers at the airports, especially the Flight Attendants (The PFAA, an AMFA-like independent union that split from the Teamsters) and Baggage Handlers and Ticket Agents (IAM). It had to become an issue of concern and attention for working people generally. It had to create a crisis for the larger capitalist class beyond the NWA board and large stockholders.

Within the Solidarity Committee, an informal action group (made up of mechanics, revolutionary unionists, and a few other radical supporters), and among individuals there was no real disagreement with this view. But there were serious questions and concerns about whether and how this was possible. Our ideas about direct action meshed with some of the strikers though, and we were able to pull off some important actions.

Three significant direct actions were organized jointly by revolutionary unionists and an informal mechanics action group. The first action served as a kind of test. More then 50 workers (mostly AMFA members) picketed a hotel where scabs were being put up and moved on to hotel property feeling out the reaction of the scabs, security and police. To follow that up we announced to the media and the union’s membership that we were going to picket the homes of NWA CEO and Board members. Our group chartered three school buses but shortly before moving out from the launching area/Strike HQ announced to each full bus of 80 plus strikers and supporters that the buses were instead going to three of the hotels where NWA was putting up scabs, in order to blockade the buses NWA chartered for their PM shift. This idea was greeted enthusiastically and we were off. The ruse worked. Vance security and local police were waiting for us at CEO Chuck Steenland’s home. At each hotel serious confrontations developed with the scab buses, delaying their movement for a couple hours.

At one hotel location, a scab bus mysteriously developed a flat tire, making a perfect backdrop for an impromptu press conference featuring Local 33 officers and activist flight attendants and baggage handlers who were supporting AMFA. Shortly before police announced they would make mass arrests we retreated as planned.

The shift had been delayed and NWA was confronted with a security hole it hadn’t planned for. Direct Action was on the agenda as the way forward, and dozens of workers had played a part in planning and carrying out the most audacious labor action in the Twin Cities in years. The press would have to adjust from its comfortable story line of the union’s defeat. And in an end around the AFL-CIO’s stonewall, trade unionists and their supporters would see the strike’s energy and action on TV and the front page… Except this was also the day after Hurricane Katrina hit and the reality of that situation would wipe nearly everything else out of public discussion and consciousness.

A couple weeks later, following a rally at the Strike Headquarters the same group of us organized and motivated for a car caravan to drive over to the main gate at the airport where the scabs were brought in. Over 200 cars ended up participating - totally jamming up the service road that the scab buses would use. A couple of our cars ended up having “engine trouble” causing the police to make two arrests and tow out two vehicles. Again a shift was delayed, NWA was caught unprepared tactically, and spirits soared.

(In separate anonymous actions, there were reports of metal spike caltrops being spread on that same service road to the airport utilized for transporting scabs, and of a couple scabs being beat up at the hotels they were being put up in by the Corporation.)

There was however no easy consensus on the next step forward. AMFA had been overconfident in their ability to shut down the airline simply by withdrawing their labor. NWA had seen that coming though, and many believe actually wanted the confrontation. While almost no AMFA folks crossed in the first couple months, the company kept the planes flying by hiring and training scabs and using management around the clock. The FAA and the local “liberal” media conspired to suppress the gross safety violations and a couple of near misses that resulted.

We were not able to find a way to create momentum towards more action, involving broader groups of airline workers and others. There was lots of discussions of what it would take to actually shut down the airport for a day - the kind of action that would create a huge amount of attention for the strike and pressure on the other unions to support it - but no plan emerged that seemed realistic.

As the strike dragged on - now entering it’s 6th month - more AMFA workers, including many of the strike’s active core that we had worked with, started peeling away to go find work elsewhere, move out of state, or just plain move on. Despite the dismal scene, AMFA workers in December voted to reject yet another, worse final offer from NWA. There will be no face-saving way out here. Heads held high, the NWA mechanics and cleaners have had to absorb a major blow. The company now must absorb bankruptcy, the other unions the shame of having stood by and watched. We, who supported and fought alongside the striking workers, need to absorb the lessons.

Some Lessons for Anarchists

1. There clearly is an offensive by the bosses aimed at what have been the best working-class jobs. (See Delphi, GM, Ford, Delta, Northwest . . .) The aim is to force US workers to compete with workers internationally on a much lower playing field.

2. These attacks will generate resistance. Since the mainstream unions are not oriented toward militant struggle, the workers, will by necessity have to seek additional and/or other vehicles to organize struggle.

3. The traditional anarchist and syndicalist methods of direct action and horizontal organization, as well as agitation for expanded Mass Strikes or even General Strikes will be immediately useful to the workers in this situation. Proposals for these tactics may find a much more receptive audience than we are used to. Many workers will be quite skillful at organizing and implementing these tactics. We will have as much to learn as to teach.

4. These type of actions have the potential to escalate and will be met by repression. We have a responsibility to help prepare for the consequences, and plan for the next steps. Individual direct actions can be reduced to “stunts”, if not part of a broader strategy. Police brutality, arrests, and corporate lawsuits against the union can have a chilling effect if folks aren’t prepared.

5. Despite the potential radicalization among these sectors, it is not automatic that it will go wholly in a libertarian direction. Indeed there is a wide opening for authoritarian and even fascist politics among this sector (made up largely of the formerly best paid and mostly white and male workers). Anti-immigration, economic protectionism and general U.S. nationalism will have to be countered in creative and practical ways.

6. There is a need for an organized pole of consistent revolutionary anarchist / syndicalist ideas and action that can relate to and help develop this resistance. I think comrades in the WSA, NEFAC, NWAF, exFRAC, ARA and individual anarchist militants need to discuss whether the IWW or some other common front is needed to serve as such a pole.


From the forthcoming issue of WORKERS SOLIDARITY, publication of the
anarchosyndicalist Workers Solidarity Alliance (WSA) 339 Lafayette Street #202, NY NY 10012. mailto:wsany@hotmail.com

author by james burnspublication date Sat Jul 29, 2006 07:45author address author phone Report this post to the editors

While I was not involved in this strike, K-Dog's account doesn't seem to square with the information out there. Wasn't AMFA's negotiating position that if NWA needed concessions, they should get them from other, less skilled employees than mechanics? How does this fit with solidarity with their co-workers? If non-striking nwa workers were in fact ready to act in solidarity, the labor law these workers are covered by makes them some of the few that could have honored amfa picket lines without risking their jobs. So why didn't they? Part of the reason may have been amfa's negotiation positions -- it's hard to believe it was official IAM opposition to honoring the picket lines. Most unions are simply not organized enough to find a way to enforce a ban like this.

This negotiating position, if accurate, unfortunately fits with AMFA's reputation as an organization that raids others based on sometimes racist appeals to mechanics to seperate themselves from 'knuckle draggers' (baggage handlers) and form a union based on skill. AMFA is also noted, to my knowledge, for a distinct lack of organizing unorganized workers, instead concentrating on workers who are already 'organized', however real that may be. This, in fact, is where much of the afl opposition comes from, rather being purely an 'independent' vs. afl union thing. Many of them have been the subject of repeat amfa raiding attempt which are based on the elitist idea that skilled workers are better of on their own, rather than in industrial organizations. Also, it should be noted that some change to win unions did publicly side with amfa, although I do not know how concrete or long-lasting that solidarity was.

I also wonder what K-Dog thinks of the decision to strike when it was widely known that nwa had been training replacements for months. Faced with this situation with verizon, cwa and the ibew chose to fight inside, rather than strike, while not announcing that would not strike, forcing the company to keep paying the expense of keeping managers and non-bargaining unit employers ready to go in the event of a strike. Eventually, CWA/IBEW succeeded with this tactic in acheiving a contract that I believe addressed the core issues of job security.

Finally, K-Dog suggests that the struggle against many of the massive layoffs/buyouts in the auto (delphi, to be followed by the other us manufacturers), steel and other industrial sectors is a fruitful place for anarchist/revolutionary unionist collobaration with activitated rank and file workers. While this may produce impressive direct actions, will it help build a movement? Many leftists, anarchist and otherwise, have struggled with rank and file workers against plant closings and mass layoffs over the last 25+ years and very little of a lasting movement has been built from this. As plants closed, rank and file activists often moved away or into unorganized workplaces. While there are a few stories of former union activists organizing their new workplace, it is far from the typical experience.

Would it be better for anarchists prioritizing workplace organizing to focus their efforts on sectors of the economy that are expanding and where new organizing, dramatic contract campaigns, and strikes are taking place -- such as health care, hospitality, security, education, construction, wireless telecommunications, public services, and others-- as a contribution to building a radical, hopefully eventually revolutionary, pole in the labor movement?

author by Kdog - IWW Twin Cities (personal cap.)publication date Thu Aug 17, 2006 14:27author address author phone Report this post to the editors

James,

Thanks for your comments. It is good to have debate and discussion.

Well, you say my take doesn’t compute, but I’d say you’ve been taken in by IAM bureaucracy propaganda. You seem to be grasping for reasons not to support the mechanics/custodians strike at Northwest.

I’ll try and deal briefly with the points you raise:

1.”Wasn't AMFA's negotiating position that if NWA needed concessions, they should get them from other, less skilled employees than mechanics?”

Well that’s what the IAM bureaucracy said, and they got their “leak’ from Northwest, so you can see that there is good reason to question this report. AMFA officially denied that allegation. That doesn’t rule out that it is possibly true, but this wasn’t the main thrust of the strike. I would also note that in all the work groups’ separate bargaining there was a bit of trying to slough off the cuts on other groups. None of the work groups or their unions came out clearly against all concessions for all the work groups. But this became the spirit of the AMFA strike. Much more so then the other unions.

Twin Cities AMFA Local 33 (the biggest and maybe most important AMFA local for Northwest workers) never made those kind of comments, and in fact continually pledged to support any other work group that came out with them. And AMFA did indeed support those few baggage handlers and Flight Attendants that honored the strike.

Also we should be clear that AMFA represented both the mechanics and the custodians and cleaners at NWA.

2. “If non-striking nwa workers were in fact ready to act in solidarity, the labor law these workers are covered by makes them some of the few that could have honored amfa picket lines without risking their jobs. So why didn't they? Part of the reason may have been amfa's negotiation positions -- it's hard to believe it was official IAM opposition to honoring the picket lines. Most unions are simply not organized enough to find a way to enforce a ban like this”

I’m afraid this is really naive. While it is true that IAM baggage handlers had the contractual right to honor the picket lines, their officers advised them not to. Workers that did were not eligible for any strike pay. The baggage handlers had no confidence that their bureaucracy was willing to fight for them. This made workers very cautious. Animosity with AMFA was a much bigger factor for the leadership than the rank and file. IAM was still sore about losing that dues base.

As far as your claim that IAM’s opposition would be hard to enforce, this is again unfortunately not true. IAM got the AFL to put out a letter to everyone of it’s local labor council’s ordering them not to support the AMFA strike. This was a big deal, it meant that when an IWW Fellow Worker who is also a delegate from his mainstream union to the Minneapolis Central Labor Council tried to raise a motion in support of the strike at the council, the President refused to allow it to be heard. Many workers spoke in favor of it anyway, and it probably would have passed, but the Local council president broke the by-laws in order stifle any vote.

In my own mainstream union Local, myself and other wobbly dual-carders tried to raise support for AMFA against the vicious opposition of our local executive board. We mostly won, but it was always a very hard fight.

3. AMFA is elitist and “raiders”

Well again, that’s one way to look at it, and certainly the way the sellout IAM bureaucrats tried to sell it. My article argued that yes, the AMFA workers were overconfident that their skill set would be too hard to replace, and that this gave them a stronger position to fight from.

It is also true that the mechanics’ side of AMFA is the most white, male and high paid workgroup (other than the pilots) in the airline. There were definitely divisions amongst the Northwest working-class along these and others. But those divisions were there before the mechanics and cleaners left to join AMFA. Those divisions exist in our class, and it is something that has to be taken on. In my estimation, the time when workers are most open to challenging themselves and their privilege and to smash those divisions is when they are in struggle. IAM did not and has not organized workers to struggle.

Bottom line: The mechanics and cleaners voted democratically to leave IAM and join AMFA, not mainly to get away from the other workgroups at Northwest, but from the IAM sellout leadership.

4. “I also wonder what K-Dog thinks of the decision to strike when it was widely known that nwa had been training replacements for months.”

You raise an interesting idea: an inside fight. I am not sure if this would have worked, but certainly worth discussing. My doubts stem from a) NWA’s willingness to shove the new contract down their throats- including massive layoffs. and b) airline safety- what the mechanics do- is a bit dicey to mess with. The capitalist press certainly would have put the pressure on, the FAA too. But thinking creatively is important . . .

5. “Would it be better for anarchists prioritizing workplace organizing to focus their efforts on sectors of the economy that are expanding and where new organizing, dramatic contract campaigns, and strikes are taking place?”

Why does it have to be either/or? My article didn’t argue that. Simply put, the capitalist reorganizing, downsizing and outsourcing of the economy is creating resistance (this includes in some of the sectors you point to). We should be with that resistance.

solidarity,

kdog

author by Tom Wetzel - WSA (personal capacity)publication date Fri Aug 18, 2006 14:16author address author phone Report this post to the editors

It is certainly true, as James says, that the strategic opportunities are better in some industries than in others. Here in the USA, the "landlocked" industries -- the work that can't readily be moved offshore -- present a better strategic possibility: public utilities, transportation, retail, construction, restaurants, building service & maintenance (includes janitors and security officers). But they all present their own problems as well. And we have to be concerned and involved where the struggles actually occur, as Kdog says. The struggles at NWA and Delphi also bring out the decomposition in the AFL unions. It was instructive that mechanics, cleaners and flight attendants all dumped AFL unions at NWA.

I wanted to address Kdog's last question:
"There is a need for an organized pole of consistent revolutionary anarchist / syndicalist ideas and action that can relate to and help develop this resistance. I think comrades in the WSA, NEFAC, NWAF, exFRAC, ARA and individual anarchist militants need to discuss whether the IWW or some other common front is needed to serve as such a pole."

I've been a libertarian syndicalist since the late '60s, but I've never been a member of the IWW. At this point in the USA, I think a different approach is needed. To build a social base for Left-libertarian ideas within the working class, it is necessary to be involved in mass struggles and mass organizations as they develop and exist. We have a social base if our ideas have some influence on people and the course of events, beyond our own activist/ideological groups. This implies that we also have some contribution we can make to develop these struggles and how people organize. There are various kinds of mass organizations or struggles that we should pay attention to here, or help to further. This can include rank-and-file oppositions inside the top-down AFL or CTW unions, or we may have opportunities to help to develop new unions, or other kinds of mass organizations. Class struggles also occur in the community, there are mass organizations in tenant organizing, among public transit riders, and so on. There are struggles around issues of social concern such as health care, extreme incarceration, police brutality. So, a reason that an organization like the IWW can't be the pole Kdog refers to is that it is too narrow, since it defines itself as a union. Here it is useful to bring in the "dual organization" concept. A revolutionary activist organization has one sort of role to play, and mass organizations have a different role to play. I think it is a mistake to think of the organization of revolutionaries as limited to the "battle of ideas", as merely a propaganda group. We need to be able to also do practical organizing, and build mass organizations, where we can. Much of the radical left exists largely as propaganda groups, in the USA. But building a social base for ideas presupposes going beyond that, and doing the practical organizing, and helping to build mass organizations. We need to be sure our debates on this subject do not suffer from a static picture about working class consciousness. The USA is a rather conservative country, but it has gone through periods when things were different. People can change and consciousness can change. We must believe this if we believe that the working class has the capacity to liberate itself. But if so, then how? How does the working class change in its consciousness? I think that developing a sense of power, rather than powerlessness, of the potential to change things, is needed in order to interest large numbers of ordinary folks in ideas about radical change. That's because people have to believe it is possible to change things. So, this suggests the importance of building collective actions, and building organizations that permit ordinary people to engage in collective struggle, and to develop a sense of their ability to control their own struggles and organizations. Ultimately a different kind of unionism is needed in the USA. The top-down business unionism we have tends to retard working class consciousness, it leads people to not think in terms of the possibility of more meaningful changes. And the island of bureaucratic business unionism is shrinking, despite the huge centralization of bureaucratic power going on in unions like SEIU and UBCJA.

author by mitchpublication date Sun Dec 24, 2006 00:21author email wsany at hotmail dot comauthor address author phone Report this post to the editors

More from the history of aviation struggle...

From the libertarian socialist publication
Root & Branch No. 1 (1970), pp. 6-7
--------------------------------------------------------------
Two days after Nixon broke the letter carriers' strike the air traffic controllers walked off their jobs and stayed out for three weeks. The controllers called in sick, attempting to avoid the still legal penalties for striking.

The air traffic controller has the most difficult job in the aviation industry. The airline pilot's workload is reduced by the auto-pilot, the co-pilot and the flight engineer. And the pilot is limited to 85 flying hours a month. Controllers face constant pressure and must make hundreds of correct- immediate- decisions ten hours a day, six days a week.

The controller uses radar and radio to keep planes separated. Often the pilot does not even know where he is. When planes head toward busy airports for landing, the controller brings them in separating them by the legal limit of 3 miles. And 3 miles at 180 knots approach speed is only 1 minute of flying time. The controllers had to organize against the FAA to maintain this 3 mile limit. Controllers have told me that there are near mid-air collisions in the clouds that pilots never know about. When planes change their routing to avoid thunderstorms the safety margin is especially thin.

The controller is at the mercy of antique and inadequate equipment. At the Kennedy Approach Control center the radar failed while a controller was bringing six planes into JFK. The controller sent the first plane up, the second one down, the third to the right, and the fourth to the left. The fifth one he told to continue straight ahead. And to plane six he said "I'm sorry buddy, you're going to have to stop right where you are."

When the radio transmitter fails, the controller must watch silently on radar as targets converge and hopefully keep on going.

During the 1960s the volume and speed of air traffic increased phenomenally. But the government spent little money on improving and modernizing the air traffic control system. From 1964 to 1968 no controllers were hired. This meant that each controller had to handle many more planes. To prevent delays the controllers were forced to violate the government's own safety rules.

In 1968 the controllers threw out a government union and organized PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization). They began "Operation Air Safety" in the summer of 1968. They collectively refused to squeeze planes dangerously close together.

Since 1968 the government has been hiring controller trainees. But it takes 3 to 4 years to train a man for radar traffic control. In the meantime the regular controllers have the added burden of training the new men in addition to doing their jobs. Often the trainees learn by controlling actual planes. In Puerto Rico nineteen persons lost their lives when a plane was sent into a mountain by a trainee. His instructor was busy with regular duties.

The major high-density control centers were the heart of the "sick-out." Most of the present controllers were hired in the 1956-58 period and are now in their mid-thirties. Their health and ability to control traffic is failing due to the constant strain. A recent medical survey of controllers found 68 percent have chest pains, 81 percent vomited blood, and 95 percent had visual disturbance (double vision). The FAA will not let them transfer to other less intense centers. To retire they must have 30 years of service or be 55 years old.

Last summer FAA boss, John Shaffer, testified before a congressional committee that the controllers were not underpaid or overworked. Spontaneously controllers across the country called in sick for several days. Since that time, the FAA has stepped up harrassment of PATCO members. PATCO lost its dues checkoff privilege.

Before the recent strike the FAA had refused to negotiate the PATCO demands: 20 years retirement, 30 hour week, higher pay, and better equipment. The final blow came when the FAA gave involuntary transfers to three Baton Rouge PATCO members. Three thousand five hundred controllers called in sick out of a total of 8500 workers.

During the sick-out, the controllers came under intense pressure from the FAA and the airlines. The airline organization (the Air Transport Association) sued each controller individually for damages. The suit is still pending. The FAA sent telegrams of dismissal and suspension to the "sick" controllers. The government forced the PATCO officers to call off the strike; and the officers publicly ordered the men to return to work. In consequence, the issues were confused for the public and for other aviation workers.

The FAA used supervisors who had little current experience and trainees to keep the system going during the sick-out. The rate of near mid-air collision was four times normal. The controllers tried to get the pilots to support their action. But ALPA (Airline Pilots Association), the pilots' organization, is very conservative. ALPA denied the FAA would let them fly if conditions were unsafe. The FAA claimed the airways were safe, because the pilots were flying.

The controllers went back after a compromise was mediated by a federal judge. The FAA promised negotiations and no reprisals when the controllers returned to work. After the men went back, however, the FAA transferred PATCO officers to clerical jobs. PATCO went back to the federal judge who had worked out the compromise and he ordered the FAA to return the men to their regular jobs. The three Baton Rouge men have since been fired.

The FAA has started negotiations with PATCO on the controller demands. The FAA promises action, but the controllers are waiting to see what will happen. Many of them are talking about working for the Canadian Air Traffic Control system.

There have been some changes. In the New York Center the men are now working a five day week. The workload is the same but the overtime has been reduced. The airlines have not gone back to their regular schedules and the men are enforcing "flow control" procedures on the airlines. That is, planes now wait on the ground to prevent delays in the air.

The airlines operate with average flights only half filled. Much airline congestion is caused by competitive pressures. Each airline wants its flights to leave at the rush hours.

PATCO is both a workers' movement and a traditional trade union. PATCO officers would be happy to mediate between the men and the FAA. PATCO wants arbitration and dues checkoff. It attempted to conduct the sick-out within the legal system. There were no demonstrations at airports or FAA centers to spread the strike. The controllers were able to stop half of all airline flights during their strike, but they did not win their demands.

The controllers' struggle has changed their political views. They are more sympathetic to the current student strike against the war. They have understood the necessity of direct action. Traditional trade union methods cannot deal with the basic problems in the aviation industry. The airlines are buying expensive jumbo jets which they do not need, and their losses increase. With profits declining the airlines will step up their pressure to compromise safety. Major airlines have already begun to lay off workers.

Only a revolutionary movement for workers control of industry will guarantee jobs and safety. Aviation workers who daily risk their lives -- as well as the lives of thousands of passegers -- in unsafe conditions must begin to build that movement. The controllers may go on strike again if the FAA does not submit to their demands. When the controllers go out again, they should not be alone. Pilots, ground workers, and other FAA employees should join them to fight resolutely for air safety, better working conditions, and more jobs.

Related Link: http://www.labor.iu.edu/LaborHistory/rab/01/unfriendly.html
 
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