The Unions' Challenge: Don't Lock in Temp Jobs : Labor: Timing and an eager President rescued the flight attendants, but big companies like American Airlines may have long-term advantages.

Harold Meyerson is executive editor of L.A. Weekly and a member of the editorial board of Dissent

Has ever a strike been better timed than the American Airlines' flight attendants'? Not only did they cripple their employer on the busiest week of the year, costing American anywhere from $10 million to $25 million a day. They also stumbled upon the Clinton Administration's post-NAFTA remorse. Clearly, the Administration wanted to make amends to a labor movement it had just finished clobbering--and here were all these low-paid flight attendants standing up to a latter-day Frank Lorenzo. It was one of those rare moments in U.S. labor history when the White House wanted to help a union as badly as the union wanted the White House to help.

But it's becoming apparent that American's management wanted the President to step in, too. This was not a strike that CEO Robert L. Crandall had anticipated or that he could afford to endure. He hadn't counted upon the flight attendants' resolve--because he had misgauged the rage his demands had provoked.

For what Crandall was asking his attendants to do was sit by the phone and wait. Every fourth month, under management's offer, attendants would take lower wages and be on two-hour call for flights that needed a larger cabin crew. For good measure, they'd also be required to clean the cabin when the flight was completed, in return for which they'd pull down salaries starting at $14,000 and averaging $23,000 a year, with reduced health benefits.

Though he'd neglected to ask the attendants to darn the passengers' socks, Crandall had done just about everything else to incite a revolt. In the job market of the '90s, after all, many flight attendants must make a career of what once was a pass-through job. In 1968, the job tenure of attendants, on average, was 18 months; today, it's nine years. The very name of the union--the Assn. of Professional Flight Attendants--bespeaks a concern for status and permanence that should have made management think twice before adding janitorial tasks to the attendants' duties. Coupled with its demand for the semi-paid month-by-the-phone, management's offer amounted to the menialization--in status and income--of the flight-attendant career.

There's nothing exceptional, of course, about the flight attendants' plight. For the past decade, millions of U.S jobs have been reduced to part-time, low-wage, no-benefit positions. Five years ago, one of every four U.S. jobs was contingent (the term describing an independent contractor or a part-timer). Today, one in three is. As the economy goes global and unions grow ever weaker, America's becoming a nation of temps.

A land of part-timers flies at no-frill rates. Long-established national airlines, like American, have no easy way to compete with short-hop regional competitors like Southwest. A nation of part-timers doesn't fly as frequently as a middle-class majority nation, either. Crandall misread this last particular; he expanded American's fleet in the late '80s in expectation of the boom that never came. Now, his solution is to shrink his company and demand more work--more sporadically, at lower skill levels and for less pay--from his employees.

In a market like this, unions don't have a limitless range of options. Still, the union was better prepared than Crandall, with more than 90% of the attendants honoring the picket lines and the company unable to replace them quickly. Besides, management was posing the kind of challenge that most galvanizes unions. Almost every successful recent organizing drive has centered more on appeals to worker dignity than worker income.

But--unless you can strike at Thanksgiving when management has no backup plan and the President is eager to intervene on your behalf--unions in industries like airlines still play a losing hand. That's why many of them have been promoting the idea of employee buyouts, in which workers trade wage concessions for a major stake in the company. If the foreseeable trajectory for an industry is either downward or flat, the key questions become those of power and equitability: Who decides who goes and who stays? How fair are those decisions?

Not just unionists, but many institutional investors and lenders have concluded that the best airlines in these circumstances are at least partly worker-owned and -operated. Problem is, management likes to spin off its profitable divisions (like American's and United's reservations services) into separate ventures, and stick the workers with the red-ink sectors. Also, buyouts may be viable for a high-wage work force like airline pilots, but for flight attendants--a union of 20-granders--there's precious little income to swap for the shares.

Even successful buyouts in chronically troubled industries, however, are partial victories at best--preserving living standards, but only for a steadily shrinking pool of workers. European unions are pioneering a more comprehensive response to hard times, negotiating cutbacks in the work week to avoid massive layoffs. But even the most powerful unions can do little more than ensure that the pain is shared more equitably.

Arresting the broader decline is a task for the state, in tandem with unions. To his credit, Clinton is the first recent President even to try. His solution is training: By creating a better-educated, more highly skilled work force--through greater worker retraining, a national apprenticeship program and universal college loans--America will recapture all that high-end investment and recreate its middle-class majority.

Training is certainly a necessary part of any economic turnaround; it's just not sufficient. Even in Germany, the model for many of Clinton's policies, with its skilled work force and its worker representatives on corporate boards, companies are moving to Eastern Europe for cheaper labor. In a global economy, there are no more simply national models for regaining prosperity.

Really helping flight attendants, and the tens of millions like them who have commenced their descent into the global labor market, requires the creation, on an international scale, of the institutions of a mixed economy--vibrant unions, minimum wages and the like--that have been a part of virtually every national economy to achieve widespread affluence. It requires the kind of worker-rights' side agreement that was not part of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Absent such policies--and absent powerful unions and an upgraded work force--the future will still be as Crandall wants it, with workers reduced to sitting at home awaiting the company's call.

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