PITTSBURGH — At 5:30 a.m. Julie Burnett, 53, was busy at the US Airways ticket counter assisting passengers with the newfangled machines generating their boarding passes.
“These machines are taking our jobs along with those crooks in the front office and that judge,” she said. “It’s criminal. [Allegheny County Executive] Dan Onorato was right. Don’t give these thieves another dime. They are destroying our families and our neighborhoods.”
Burnett is just one of 850 US Airways workers who will be laid off this month as a result of the US Airways bankruptcy. Losing a job in Western Pennsylvania is just another nail in the coffin for a region that has been declining for two decades. In addition to millions from the federal government to bail out the corporation, Allegheny County kicked in millions in deferred airport fees under Onorato’s predecessor, Republican Jim Roddy. Onorato halted the airline’s gravy train.
Burnett believes that corporate mismanagement and greed have cost her a job she has held for 26 years.
US Airways, the country’s 7th largest airline, like United Airlines and over 35 steel corporations, ran to bankruptcy court in Alexandria, Va. to save its profits. Bankruptcy Judge Stephen Mitchell tried to trash the unions’ contracts, but a threatened strike by US Airways workers in December saved the union, forcing arank-and-file vote on proposed temporary concessions.
The International Association of Machinists (IAM), the Airline Pilots Association and the Association of Airline Flight Attendants went to work. Workers voted to strike, but sporadically, and the unions appealed to Congress for intervention, especially on the pension funds.
When US Airways showed up in court, it demanded that the judge eliminate collective bargaining rights, suspend payments to the pension funds, which cover thousands of workers and their families, and impose massive layoffs and wage cuts.
When the smoke cleared in January, the unions had tempered US Airways’ slash-and-burn demands. Judge Mitchell ordered temporary “modifications” that had to be ratified by US Airways workers, saving the unions’ right to bargain. The modifications included an immediate 21 percent wage cut, 850 layoffs and reducing the amount of money the company pays into workers’ pension funds for four months. The layoffs are permanent, with machines replacing ticketing agents.
Workers approved the concessions with a gun to their heads, many said.
The fight continues, as it does for steelworkers, to save the pension funds. In October, the IAM called for congressional action to restructure bankruptcy laws and protect the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC), where taxpayers underwrite private corporate pension plans.
The union presented a three-point program to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation: One, a temporary moratorium on airline corporations dumping pension funds on the PBGC; two, put the PBGC in the front of the creditors’ line for payment of debts; and three, authorize the federal agency to negotiate with unions and companies, on a case by case basis, to maximize maintenance of pension plans.
While Congress is focused on the privatization of Social Security and US Airways owners continue to deposit big checks, Burnett and hundreds of other workers wonder how to pay their bills, and what will happen to them.