Archive for the ‘Bankruptcy’ Category

Employers Stand their Ground

Thursday, April 19th, 2012

These are heady days for the corporate accountability movement. Threats of consumer boycotts prompted half a dozen major companies to drop out of the American Legislative Exchange Council, which in turn forced ALEC to cease its efforts to get states to enact “stand your ground” laws like the one in Florida at the center of an uproar over the shooting of an unarmed teenager.

At the same time, institutional investors humiliated Citigroup by rejecting a board-approved compensation package for its senior executives. Although the “say on pay” resolution is non-binding, it will in all likelihood result in smaller paydays for top officers of an institution that epitomizes financial sector misconduct. This comes on the heels of an announcement by Goldman Sachs that it would change its board structure in response to pressure from the capital strategies arm of the public employee union AFSCME.

Environmentalists have succeeded in stalling and perhaps killing the disastrous Keystone XL pipeline . The past few months have also seen a surge in protest over working conditions at the Chinese plants that produce the wildly popular Apple iPad tablets. Apple’s manufacturing contractor Foxconn was forced to boost pay for factory workers, while Apple itself faced demonstrations at many of its normally idolized retail stores. The Apple campaign and others are being propelled by new online services such as Sum of Us and Change.org that mobilize online pressure for a variety of anti-corporate initiatives.

Missing from all this positive momentum is a significant victory for the U.S. labor movement. While major corporations have bowed to pressure from consumers and shareholders, they are standing their ground against unions.

Rather than making concessions, large private-sector employers are looking to further roll back labor’s power. Companies such as American Airlines and Hostess Brands (maker of Twinkies and Wonder Bread) have filed for Chapter 11 and are using the bankruptcy courts to decimate their collective bargaining agreements and gut pension plans.

Verizon continues to stonewall in negotiations with members of the Communications Workers of America, who struck the company for two weeks last summer in the face of unprecedented concessionary demands from management but then went back to work without a new contract. CWA is also facing difficult negotiations with AT&T, even though the union went out on a limb to support the company’s ultimately unsuccessful bid to take over T-Mobile.

There have been a few relatively bright spots for labor. For example, after being locked out for three months, Steelworkers union members at Cooper Tire and Rubber managed to negotiate a new contract that excluded the company’s demand for a five-tier wage structure with no guaranteed pay increases.

Yet organized labor has not been able to take the offensive in a significant way, and employers continue to feel emboldened. This comes through loud and clear in the results of the latest Employers Bargaining Objectives survey conducted by Bloomberg BNA (summarized in the April 11 edition of Labor Relations Week).

“Employers are fairly brimming with confidence as they head into 2012 talks,” Bloomberg BNA writes. “Nine out of 10 of the employers surveyed are either fairly confident or highly confident of obtaining the goals they have set for their labor agreements.”

Those goals, of course, do not include hikes in pay and improvements in working conditions. In fact, only 11 percent of respondents said they expected to have to negotiate significant wage increases, while 27 percent said they planned to bargain for no improvements at all in wage rates. Many employers expect to shift more health care costs to workers, and few expect to agree to stronger job security provisions.

Employers are prepared to play hardball in seeking their objectives. For example, one-quarter of manufacturing-sector respondents told Bloomberg BNA they would be likely to resort to a lockout of workers if they did not get their way in negotiations. Corporations have little fear of strikes, which are all but extinct, and if workers do dare to walk out, employers are confident of prevailing—or at least maintaining the kind of impasse that exists at Verizon.

Such arrogance is not surprising at a time when unemployment levels remain high and private-sector unionization rates are abysmally low. The question is what it will take to shatter employer intransigence.

One piece of the solution is greater cooperation between unions and the rest of the broader corporate accountability movement, and that’s exactly what seems to be emerging from the 99% Spring offensive.

Strong private sector unions in the United States are an essential check on the power of large corporations and one of the most effective vehicles for raising living standards. Corporate accountability will mean much more when big business is running away not only from ALEC but also from union-busting.

Pension Busting at American Airlines

Thursday, December 1st, 2011

There was once a time when a bankruptcy filing by a company was a mark of shame. That stigma has fallen by the wayside, and firms now employ Chapter 11 not to protect themselves against creditors but for strategic purposes.

One of the most popular ploys is to use the bankruptcy court to undermine the bargaining position of labor unions. The latest firm to do so is American Airlines, which said it took the step to “achieve industry competitiveness.” This is corporate-speak for “we’re going to milk our employees dry.”

Such union-busting bankruptcies are far from new. They were pioneered three decades ago by the likes of ruthless airline executive Frank Lorenzo, who used Chapter 11 to abrogate union contracts after taking over Continental Airlines in 1983. Six years later he tried something similar at Eastern Airlines, but changes in the law forced him to settle for weakening the unions rather than eliminating them altogether. Subsequently, most of the other major carriers (and various smaller ones) also went through the bankruptcy process.

Airline management has made the most of the system. In 2006 a federal bankruptcy court barred unions at regional carrier Mesaba Airlines from engaging in strikes or other job actions, prompting the company’s unions to agree to management’s wage-cutting demands. In 2008 a bankruptcy judge gave Frontier Airlines permission to cancel its collective bargaining agreement with the Teamsters, but that decision was later overruled in federal district court. The union, nonetheless, had to make contract concessions, as have workers at other carriers and in other industries.

It remains to be seen how far AMR will go in using the bankruptcy process against its unions. Yet there is little doubt that it will seek to slash labor costs, especially those relating to pensions. The head of the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation has already expressed concern that AMR might terminate its plans—the way United Air Lines did during its stint in Chapter 11.

This would put an enormous strain on the PBGC, which has already amassed a deficit of $26 billion and would have difficulty providing significant payments to the tens of thousands of people covered by AMR’s pension plans.

There is good reason for AMR’s unions to be concerned about management’s intentions. AMR’S crusade against labor began three decades ago, when Robert Crandall took control of the company in the early days of airline industry deregulation. Apparently inspired by Reagan’s crushing of the air controllers strike, he was determined to get workers to bear the financial consequences of increased competition.

In the early 1980s AMR was one of the country’s first major employers to adopt the pernicious practice of two-tier wages. Crandall pressured unionized pilots to accept a contract that cut the pay of new hires by a whopping 50 percent; for flight attendants the reduction was more than 30 percent, making many of them eligible for food stamps. The moves transferred $100 million a year from paychecks to company coffers.

AMR also pioneered the practice of high-tech offshore outsourcing in 1983 when it set up a subsidiary in Barbados called Caribbean Data Services. The company began air-shipping tons of used ticket coupons to the facility, where operators (mostly women) paid $1.75 to $3 an hour entered the information on computer terminals and then transmitted it via satellite to the airline’s accounting center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. By 1985 the operation was successful enough in cutting costs that American shut down its data-entry operation in Tulsa.

When unions began to challenge the two-tier system in the late 1980s, AMR sued them for supposed violations of federal labor law, fired activists and threatened to shut down the airline. Eventually, Crandall had to accept a softening of the two-tier arrangement, but he pursued a relentless campaign against labor costs which prompted a 1993 strike by flight attendants that ended only when President Clinton personally intervened. Four years later, Clinton intervened again when American’s pilots walked out to protest the company’s rigid bargaining position.

Crandall’s successor, Donald Carty, continued the company’s confrontational labor relations posture. In 2003 he used the threat of bankruptcy to wring $1.8 billion in annual concessions from AMR’s unions. While those negotiations were taking place, AMR management failed to mention that it was simultaneously offering lucrative retention bonuses and special pension protections to top executives at the company. When the plan came to light, the uproar was so intense that AMR’s board ousted Carty and—for a while—adopted a less aggressive posture toward the unions. With the bankruptcy filing, the company appears to be returning to its savage ways.

When Occupy protesters or others talk about income inequality, conservatives complain that this is class warfare. The real class war is that being waged by corporations against decent wages and benefits, using the bankruptcy courts as one of their most effective weapons.

What makes this all the more galling is that severe restrictions have been placed on the ability of struggling individuals—including young people overwhelmed by student loan debt—to use the bankruptcy system to gain relief. Here, as in so many other areas, corporate “persons” have been given the upper hand over real people.