Air Line Pilot, April 2003

President's Forum: Labor Goes to Battle

The AFL-CIO Executive Council, of which I am a member and vice- president, along with other union presidents, met for its regular winter session in late February. A great deal of our time during this meeting was spent with political leaders such as Reps. Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.), Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) , Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.), Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), and other prominent Democrats, who came to our meeting to seek our input on front-burner legislative issues.

From interacting with all of the other union presidents who attended the meeting, I became firmly convinced that a war is being waged on organized labor—and it’s a fight to the death with no prisoners taken. American workers are cannon fodder in combat forced on them on many fronts, with the transportation industry the newest battlefield. We have all seen evidence of this war—with the President’s threat of no large airline strikes on his watch and more PEBs invoked on airline bargaining than ever before in our industry’s history. Recently, airline managements have begun plundering our pay, benefits, and working conditions to find profits they seem to have lost in an economic firefight our government is unwilling or unable to end.

High on the AFL-CIO’s agenda during this meeting was defending attacks on fundamental collective bar-gaining rights—and airline employees were clearly on the labor federation’s front lines. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee and who in the last congressional session introduced legislation that would have devastated airline workers’ bargaining rights, had planned a hearing on this hot topic for March 4. I was scheduled to testify at that hearing, but it has been postponed to a future un-determined date. ALPA’s officers and staff have put in a massive effort to prepare for this hearing—whenever it occurs—and we are more than prepared to defend our-selves in this and every other arena.

Of the wide array of issues that the AFL-CIO Executive Council considered, one issue that looms as large as the attack on our bargaining rights is the growing crisis in pension funding in this country. Frankly, the current ERISA law, which was written nearly 30 years ago, is apparently too arbitrary and inflexible, at least the way the current Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation interprets it, to give the flexibility required in this unusual economic climate we find ourselves in today.

These problems are infinitely more pronounced in bankruptcy—as proved by our US Airways pilots, who struggled to resist a distress termination of their defined benefit plan. During this AFL-CIO meeting, I spent a great deal of time conferring with the president of the Steelworkers Union and the union’s advisors. No union has been as devastated by massive furloughs, bankruptcy, and termination of virtually all of their defined benefit plans as has the Steelworkers. Their experience has only hardened my conviction that the current ERISA law—again as the PBGC interprets it—must be amended to provide the flexibility required to preserve our defined benefit plans.

In 1974, when the bulk of ERISA regulations were devised, no one envisioned 4, going on 5, straight years of stock market decline, combined with interest rates near their lowest in 40 years. In the last 30 years, we have experienced numerous periods of recession, during which many pension funds were seriously underfunded. However, in nearly every previous case, the economy, the market, and the interest rates recovered quickly enough to provide a self-correcting mechanism that saved millions of Americans from having their pension plans terminated.

Unless, by some miracle, sustained economic recovery in the United States and Canada begins very soon, many thousands more of our members will become trapped in the same type of a "box canyon" that the US Airways pilots found themselves in. Eventually the self-correcting mechanism within the marketplace will occur. Our dilemma is that self-correcting may occur too late and that legal, economic, and financial forces beyond our control begin to take over. That’s when we lose pension plans.

A legislative change to pension law is a gigantic task. With 44 million Americans covered under defined benefit plans, there are nearly as many opinions on what needs to be done. As this magazine was going to the printer in early March, ALPA’s Retirement and Insurance Committee was holding a special meeting near the union’s Herndon, Va. offices. Concurrently, and in the Herndon ALPA building, representatives from pilot groups of the larger carriers held a collective bargaining conference. Pilot pension plans were slated to be a big topic at both sessions as participants work to protect pilots’ retirement.

s/Duane E. Woerth