The class consciousness of the airline bosses

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue Mar 13 18:40:32 MST 2001

Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), March 13, 2001, Tuesday, Metro Edition

Mechanics picket White House, say Bush scuttled negotiations

Greg Gordon; Staff Writer

Washington, D.C. --Toting placards declaring that they had been
"Bushwhacked," angry Northwest Airlines mechanics picketed the White House
Monday to protest President Bush's order barring them from striking before
May 11.

Leaders of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA) charged that
Bush's decision to intervene in advance of the union's strike deadline,
which was midnight Sunday Eastern time, sent a signal that the company need
not negotiate seriously.

"He [Bush] should have let the parties negotiate," said O.V. Delle-Femine,
AMFA's national director. " . . . It's really an anti-labor stance that
he's taken."

Rejecting Bush's assertion that he was acting to avoid damage to the
economy, Delle-Femine said that Northwest's 10 percent market share "is not
going to destroy the economy."

Rather, he called the president's intervention a political payback for
Northwest's donation of "more than a million dollars" to Bush's
presidential campaign. Actually, the company gave about $231,750 in "soft
money" donations to the Republican National Committee, which aided the Bush

"Plus, we have a secretary of labor who was once a board member at
Northwest Airlines," Delle-Femine said. "It's deplorable but . . . this is
Washington politics."

Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, who resigned from the Northwest board when she
joined the cabinet, announced Feb. 20 that she would not participate in
matters affecting the airline for one year to avoid a conflict of interest.
She said her chief of staff would be the department's point person on those


[The Bakes referred to below in Petzinger's "Hard Landing" is Phil Bakes,
who started out as a student radical in the 1960s and then became one of
Ted Kennedy's staff attorneys on airline regulation. His prowess so
impressed Frank Lorenzo that he offered him as a job as number 2 in his
Texas Air holding company. I find someone like Bakes much more degenerate
than the Wall Street takeover artists who started out as fraternity jocks
and business school grinds.]

Lorenzo, though, kept asking, "When are you going to give your proposal to
the unions?’’

For a brief time Bakes resisted. He took the senior management away for the
weekend to the Keys. He met with middle management incessantly. He began
showing up for employee meetings—--JFK, Atlanta, Miami, everywhere there
were big operations— -and people actually turned out, in some cases by the
thousands. And they were listening! He told an(l retold the story of
Continental’s comeback; it (lid not hurt his credibility that as he was
walking into Eastern, Continental was reporting its highest profits ever.

Eastern’s employee newsletter, the Falcon, became Bakes’s Pravda. In issue
after issue Bakes appeared on the front page, variously looking thoughtful
and sympathetic (his hand on his chin, his elbow resting on his knee) or
confident and assertive (stabbing his finger in the air, chopping the top
of a desk with the side of his hand).

"When are you going to give your proposal to the unions?" Lorenzo kept asking.

Finally, on January 21, 1987, Bakes did. ‘‘Our labor cost structure is a
cancer, Bakes announced at a press conference. Pilots, despite having given
Borman a 20 percent cutback only months earlier, were now asked to give up
an additional 27 percent. Flight attendants, also having already cut their
wages 20 percent, would now be expected to give up another 31 percent. As
for Charlie Bryan’s mechanics and maintenance workers, they had escaped the
last round of cuts on the night that Borman had lost Eastern. Now Bakes
targeted them for the steepest cuts of all: 47 percent. "The marketplace
for people loading and unloading bags is not $43,000 a year on average,"
Bakes said.

Charlie Bryan just shrugged. With a full year left to run on the LAM
contract, there was nothing to negotiate. "The issue of opening our
contract is a nonissue," Bryan said. "We negotiate an agreement, and we
don’t go back and ask for more." When Bakes’s aides hosted a meeting with
the leaders of the unions, the LAM delegation walked out after 10 minutes,
lest anyone interpret their attendance as an admission they were willing to

On another occasion Bryan held an impromptu rally of machinists in an
employee parking lot, crying out a passage from Isaiah inscribed on a
medallion that his mother had once received from a television evangelist:
"Weapons [brined against you will not prosper!" He vowed to fight the new
management of Eastern with the principles of passive resistance. ‘‘Martin
Luther King was truly   a great American,’’ Bryan told the assembly,
adding, ‘‘I don’t care what your racial feelings might be." Company
supervisors tried to break up the rally. They ordered Bryan to leave the
parking lot. He refused. "We’re going to prevail!" he cried to the throng.
Five days later Bakes’s aides ordered Bryan stripped of his company ID
badge, banished him from Eastern Air Lines property, and ordered him, in
writing, to desist from conducting any further "public soap operas.

Bryan befuddled Lorenzo’s people. In a know-thy-enemy measure the Texas Air
corporate office commissioned a confidential "white paper" on the TAM from
a consultant (who confided in her cover letter that she had obtained
information from union representatives "on false pretenses.") Members of
the LAM, the report said, were ‘‘not overly intelligent.’’ They were, it
went on,

"unsophisticated, chauvinistic, patriotic, unadventurous, in search of a
secure and comfortable existence for themselves and their families. With
little but a time-clock job to aspire to, the Nobility of Work is an
important element in their universe.

"The TAM is an insular, somewhat paranoid organization. Business is the
enemy. The Employer is always out to rape the worker. . . . The union also
appears to believe that maintaining the largest possible wage for its
members for the longest possible time is a greater service than maintaining
their jobs."

But it was a union that was divisible, the report said, because it
bargained at once for so many unskilled trades along with the
professionally licensed mechanics who maintained and repaired airplanes.
"These are highly skilled workers,’’ the consultant’s report said,
‘‘usually pretty bright guys, rather conservative. They don’t like being
associated with the hot-headed bag-busters, [who are] less intelligent, of
lemming mentality.’’ But while the professional plane fixers were the
moderates of the LAM, the report said, ‘‘the unskilled are the union s
staunchest supporters as well as its biggest group numerically. These are
the guys with a psychic need for self-esteem."

A psychic need for self-esteem. Charlie Bryan could be accused of many
things, but pandering to the Freudian vulnerabilities of his membership was
probably not among them. Still, some of Lorenzo’s people were convinced
that Bryan suffered from a complex of some kind and where it would lead,
they could only fear. Bakes’s aides printed an anthology of Bryan’s
outrageous public pronouncements in a booklet called Charlie Says. It
looked like the Little Red Book, by which Mao Zedong had led the mass
insanity of the Cultural Revolution.

Louis Proyect
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