United flight attendants demonstrate worldwide for a contract

ILCA, Third Place, Best News Story

LOS ANGELES – Flight attendants fighting for a contract with United Airlines demonstrated in 14 cities around the world on Thursday. The lively, militant action at LAX airport’s Terminal 7 drew upward of 200 people, most of them from the L.A.-based Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) Council 12 – affiliated with the Communications Workers of America – but joined by representatives of the Airline Pilots Assn. (ALPA), SEIU, Teamsters, National Writers Union/UAW, and CWA.

The principal demands were for better pay that at least matches that in other airline companies, quality healthcare, and retiree benefits. Flight attendants showed up in uniform, the women in their smart, “sensible” heels.

If a contract is not reached soon, rolling actions will pop up throughout the country in organized C.H.A.O.S.: Creating Havoc Around Our System. It sounds like a good model for all kinds of movements!

Chant leaders were Rafael Garcia, membership engagement chair for Council 12, and Council 12 President Dante Harris. Harris pointed to all the labor support in the crowd. “This is L.A.,” he said, sweeping his arm over the assembly. “The labor community will not let United destroy families.”

Percussion instruments that beat out the rhythmic calls and responses included drums, tambourines and maracas. The union distributed whistles which everyone blew in between the chants. For a while the airport sounded like the 17-year cycle of the cicada invasion had just stormed in.

Important national labor leaders attended and made brief remarks of solidarity. Tefere Gebre, Executive Vice President of the AFL-CIO, saluted the men and women of United who make the airline what it is. “I’m a dedicated flyer of United Airlines,” he said. “You are as courageous as the firefighters and first responders. Thank you so much for standing up and fighting for what’s right.”

Sara Nelson, International President of AFA, based in Washington, D.C., also spoke. “There’s a lot of love on this picket line,” she said. “I see our community coming to support each other,” referring to the action today, the 39,000-strong Verizon strike in which CWA is involved, and the larger fight against corporate greed. “We make a difference when there’s a little adversity.”

Rusty Hicks, head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, represents 800 thousand workers in the county. “They’re standing behind you today,” he assured the protestors. “Your daily work is service and you make an ‘uneventful flight’ happen every day.”

Other cities that saw demonstrations for a United contract included the United domiciles (where the flight attendants mostly live) of Houston, Cleveland, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, D.C., New York, Denver and Las Vegas in the U.S., and London, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Guam.

A little recent United history

Readers may recall that five years ago United merged with Continental, but so far there is no union contract governing the merged workforce. The union locals are still operating independently, each with about a thousand members. Perhaps from the company’s point of view, the failure to move forward on a contract is one way to keep the workers disunited. Indeed, one of the most frequently chanted slogans on the march was “Six year delay is not okay.” At the time when United struggled to pull itself out of bankruptcy, the company mantra was “Shared sacrifice equals shared rewards,” but it’s been only the workers who have sacrificed, and only the top executives who have seen any rewards.

AFA points out that United Airlines is making record profits: In 2015 United saw income 5 times higher than in 2013.

United’s operating profit in 2015-17 is expected to be $5 billion or more for each year, and top executives and shareholders are cashing in. This knowledge also produced its slogan 200 union members chanted on Thursday: “Hey hey, ho ho, United greed has got to go,” sometimes modified into “corporate greed.” A protest sign read, “Record profit$$$. It’s our turn.”

Flight attendants deserve the stability of a merged operation, and need contract improvements that allow participation in the profits they help to create. As one of the protest signs said, anticipating the end-of-the-year holiday season, “Deck the halls with our fair share.” One AFA member came with her infant in a baby carriage which bore the signage “Give my Mom a contract.”

United’s stock price is up 204 percent since negotiations began. The company has $7 billion in cash on its balance sheet and, according to AFA, is investing $100 million in a Brazilian airline.

One of the signs demonstrators carried read, “Share price doesn’t save lives. We do.” The current United Airlines share price on the stock market is $45.

John Patrick, a supportive bystander and 33-year member of the Carpenters Union who was just winding up a year and a half-long job on United’s conveyor system, remarked, “You have no voice without a union.”

Rumors that Bernie Sanders might put in an appearance did not materialize. Sanders demonstrated with AFA in Washington, D.C., several months ago. The CWA has endorsed Sanders in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The action started on the ticketing level at LAX, then descended the escalator down to the arrival level, back up again and into the United terminal itself. There the crowd, including passersby, were serenaded by the committed 12-member union-gospel group Ty Snow Xtreme Purpose, who performed artistic renderings of Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” and other uplifting songs, finishing with some knockout harmonies on “We Shall Overcome.” Traffic of passengers and vehicles was not interrupted significantly, but AFA surely got noticed. The protest was an informational picket only, and no one was asked not to cross the line.

Dante Harris spoke of the history and importance of music in the union movement, quoting Joe Hill to the effect that a leaflet or a pamphlet once read will be soon forgotten, but a song will stay in the mind forever. He named all the union locals and constituents who showed up for the action, and even mentioned one flight attendant had brought her dog. Sara Nelson broke in, quipping, “And those dogs won’t roll over either!”

Demonstrators were more than willing to talk. “We’re gonna get a contract out of this hopefully,” said Rebecca Goldstein, who has been flying for 48 years. “We’re ready!”

“United is still asking for concessions, while they’re making record profits,” said John Palumbo, Council 12 secretary-treasurer. “They’re asking us to give up things we’ve had for 40 years.” But negotiations are proceeding, he added hopefully, and “it looks like it’s coming to an end.”

As the protest wound down, Sara Nelson asked us all to bow our heads for a moment of silent concern for the fates of the crew and passengers of Egypt Air Flight 804 which went down earlier in the day in the Mediterranean.

Los Angeles and airport police handled the crowd unobtrusively and earned the gratitude of the organizers.

When I approached Sara Nelson to answer a couple of questions for me, she replied, “People’s World? Thanks for coming out!”

More information on the AFA fight can be viewed here.

Photo: AFA demonstrates Thursday at LAX. Tefere Gebre of the national AFL-CIO is on the right in the green t-shirt.   |  Eric A. Gordon/PW


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.