UNITED STATES: Airline workers take first hit in anti-terrorism war


SAN FRANCISCO — We've all heard about the incidents: "Middle Eastern-looking" passengers being walked off aircraft because of "fear" by other passengers or flight attendants or pilots. At San Francisco's airport up to 10 people daily have suffered this fate since September 11. And, no apologies have been offered.

More than 625 incidents of anti-Arab, anti-Muslim attacks have been reported to Arab-American anti-discrimination organisations nationwide as of September 28.

President George Bush says he and his government are against such hate crimes, but ethnic scapegoating goes on. Apologists say such racial/ethnic profiling is a necessary evil to protect "our way of life" and "civilization".

New legislation, approved by Congress, now allows police to detain suspected immigrants for seven days without filing charges.

Airline workers face new closer scrutiny at airports and some face harassment. Civil liberties are out the window in "our time of national emergency". The domestic harassment is simply the flip side of Bush's international war drive to "fight terrorism".


Another impact of the anti-terrorism campaign is working people losing their jobs. Is the country in a recession? If the layoffs in the airline industry and its ripple effects in related industries are any indication, the answer is yes.

Soon after the September 11 terror attack, the federal government shut down all airports and commercial aviation. Quickly the major airlines announced major schedule reductions, and one small carrier (Midway) said it would permanently go out of business.

The drastic reductions in flight schedules (31 reductions at United Airlines) and mandatory new security checks have put the spotlight on all airline workers and their jobs. Many in government targeted airline workers as possible partners of the terrorists who crashed the two commercial airlines into the World Trade Center and one into the Pentagon and one into the ground. The four aircraft were owned by the two largest airlines in the world — American and United.

Hundreds of flight attendants have resigned out of fear. Thousands more are taking voluntary leaves of absence.

Pilots are requesting from Congress the right to bear arms on aircraft.

Airport workers are being laid off as tighter security has squeezed airline profits.

At United's maintenance centre in San Francisco, employees face random checks as they enter work. All metal silverware, for example, is banned.

At the San Francisco airport, mechanics who must go on planes to fix a problem can't bring on tools while passengers are on board. I know of one case where the entire plane was evacuated before the mechanic could change a burnt out bulb!

At the same time, the low paid screeners (many Asian immigrants) are facing job losses as they are partly blamed for the poor training and security violations. Foreign-born workers and residents especially face closer examination by passengers and co-workers.

Planned layoffs in the industry are massive: 20,000 at American and TWA (owned by American); 20,000 at United; 13,000 at Delta; 12,000 at Continental; 11,000 at US Airways; 10,000 at Northwest; and thousands more at the other carriers. The total will be nearly 100,000 employees.

Boeing, based in Seattle, and the largest aircraft manufacturer in the world announced plans to lay off 30,000 workers by the end of 2002. General aviation (propeller planes and privately owned) has also been hit hard. Most are still grounded by the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) because they lack proper instrumentation.

Impact at United

As an airline employee, I've seen first hand how the blows of September 11 are impacting this sector of the work force. I work as a mechanic at United Airlines main maintenance base in San Francisco. United employs some 20,000 workers in the Bay Area as mechanics, baggage handlers, customers service agents, flight attendants, pilots and many other positions. Most are in unions.

United lost 18 employees on the two aircraft that crashed on September 11.

Instead of working with the employees and the unions, United's top management took steps to protect their jobs and major shareholders. Word spread on the property that the company would declare bankruptcy unless Bush and Congress financially bailed out the airlines.

When the top executives met with government officials on a possible US$24 billion bailout (later reduced to US$15 billion), there was no mention of helping out laid off workers or providing job retraining.

Congress did approve at the end of September US$5 billion in grants and US$10 billion in low interest loans. The government also agreed to cover costs above insurance claims for those who died and pay for airport security costs. It is not clear if the security will be federally controlled and run or just overseen by the airlines as it is now. The airlines now take the lowest bidder for these minimum-wage-no-benefits jobs.

The bailout did not include mandates to extend unemployment benefits or healthcare coverage. In fact, United and other major airlines dropped hints that they were too broke even after the bailout to cover contractually agreed severance payments.

At Northwest Airlines a similar threat by management led to legal action by the mechanics' union, the Aircraft Mechanics' Fraternal Association.

The likely public scandal and possible backlash by Congress led the top executives at American, United, Northwest and other carriers to defer their salaries for the rest of the year and agree to pay severance and other benefits — a small victory.

Yet the bosses' aren't becoming more humane. It was revealed on October 1 that United's management was wiring US$11.25 million to a French airplane manufacturer as a down payment in an order for 30 luxury business jets for a new subsidiary, Avolar. The payment occurs as the company is firing thousands of long-time employees and receiving an US$802 million taxpayers' grant from the government.

Moreover, to add insult to injury, United's Avolar managers are going to hire a new work force to manage and service the luxury line. Laid off workers (salaried and union) can only apply as new hires.

The business jet venture exposes the cold-blooded nature of the airline business — an industry that was in trouble before the terror attack — and the capitalist system itself. It's business as usual.


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