Although Northwest Airlines declared bankruptcy, thousands of its employees are still on strike. They're walking picket lines in many American cities, protesting their employer's long-planned scheme to eliminate more than three-quarters of the striking union's workforce; to slash pay and benefits for the remainder by over 28%; and to eliminate workers' long-ago-negotiated and hard-earned pensions. The fight of these workers is for what all American workers want: the human right to earn a dignified living through proud, useful work.
In recent years, in the airline industry alone, more than 100,000 well-paying union jobs have been outsourced. Most of the remaining workers have been forced to take steep pay and benefit cuts, have lost pensions and are working longer hours. The outsourced jobs have gone to much cheaper, nonunion contractors, many of whom have the work done in other countries at despicably low wages. Jet Blue, for instance, has its aircrafts' heavy maintenance work done in El Salvador. Other American carriers have work done in Hong Kong and Singapore. Wall Street analysts have been cheering the ruthless effort by Northwest and other air carriers to "reduce labor costs," because they share the same goal: profit for non-working shareholders, even at the expense of decent wages for those who do the work.
As an elected union president intimately familiar with corporate trickery and the insidious use of the bankruptcy courts to gut union contracts, I'm very proud to tell you that there is a beautiful, democratic solution to this terribly cruel state of affairs. It was understood and explained years ago by Eli Siegel, the American poet and philosopher, founder of the education Aesthetic Realism: "Jobs," he said, "should be for usefulness, not for profit." As early as 1925, Mr. Siegel explained that the profit system has always been farcical and cruel. It is based on people who don't work, profiting from those who do. But in 1970 he saw, and explained with abundant evidence, that something new had taken place: partly because of the success of unions, this unjust, inefficient way of using people was no longer able to sustain itself. He wrote:
"There will be no economic recovery in the world until economics itself, the making of money, the having of jobs, becomes ethical; is based on good will rather than on the ill will which has been predominant for centuries."
Every year since has proven him correct. Our government's own statistics clearly show that the average wage in America has been falling, tens of millions of industrial jobs are gone and poverty is increasing. Private owners of industry have found that they can no longer make profit off American labor with the ease of once. So they have worked, with the assistance of certain government officials and unjust labor laws, as well as the bankruptcy courts, to weaken unions. And they have moved industries to countries that even more effectively crush workers' rights. Economists can say all they want about the many so-called recoveries over the years, but the hard facts belie them: The majority of Americans are increasingly struggling to feed their families and pay their bills. It is a cruel charade to continue to ignore these facts.
The answer to the crisis in the airline industry is this: The US government should simply take it over for the security and liberty of its citizens, instead of subsidizing these absurdly run private companies with multibillion-dollar bailouts. We the people already own and maintain all the major airports, employ the air traffic controllers and the security personnel. Let us stop using government money to prop up multimillion-dollar salaries, bail out banks, investment firms and non-working shareholders.
This answer is in the American tradition. Our federal and state governments and hundreds of our municipalities own or control, for the benefit of the American people, Amtrak, the post office, fire departments, subways, bus lines, schools, VA hospitals, utilities, highway departments and much more! And there isn't one million-dollar salary in the lot! Despite efforts to weaken them and screams of "inefficiency" by some with private vested interests, these entities are generally very efficient. And, most importantly, the services are provided for the good of the American people. And the management is answerable to the electorate, not to Wall Street!
Eli Siegel said, and I couldn't agree with him more: "If government by the people, why not industry by the people?"
Timothy Lynch is president of Teamsters Local 1205, based in Farmingdale, N.Y.