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Sara Nelson - A People First Rescue Plan

Date: March 22, 2020

SOURCE: THE ATLANTIC
SARA NELSON
PHOTO SOURCE: LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS 

The coronavirus is a financial catastrophe for aviation, dwarfing the economic effects of the Great Recession and 9/11 combined. Our industry will collapse in weeks without government help. To save aviation—and every other sector of our economy—we need to make sure paychecks and benefits keep flowing for as many working people as possible.

The union that I lead, the Association of Flight Attendants–CWA, represents 50,000 flight attendants across 20 airlines. And we have a plan to help aviation workers, and to rein in the worst corporate behavior in the process. 

Our proposal isn’t a repeat of past bailouts—such as the 2008 bank rescue or the airline bailouts after 9/11—in which Big Business got billions and working people had to beg for scraps. This is a rescue plan that puts people first.

There’s a good reason to start with aviation, but there’s no good reason to stop there. We can expand this approach to other sectors of the economy, in order to keep those who are able to care for themselves strong, so we can focus on fighting the virus and helping the most vulnerable.

Aviation is a cornerstone of our economy. We move millions of people and billions of dollars in cargo every day, and our industry supports jobs in every sector of our economy. We need our industry to be ready to fly as soon as the all-clear is sounded by public-health officials.

But that won’t be possible if workers are laid off or furloughed indefinitely. Federal law requires ongoing training, licensing, and security clearances for most aviation workers—including flight attendants, pilots, and mechanics, but also airport-security workers and those who clean and service the planes and terminals. If workers are laid off, and those clearances and qualifications lapse, it could take months or even years to return to full capacity, creating a bottleneck that will cut off economic recovery for other industries long after the threat from COVID-19 has passed.

Washington is preparing to step in. But no-strings-attached corporate bailouts won’t help workers today, and they will slow down our recovery when the immediate crisis passes.

When an accident occurs in aviation, our industry, our unions, and our government work together to stop it from happening again. That’s what we need to do now—with a people-first model.

It starts with our jobs. We’re asking the government to provide grants that keep every aviation worker on payroll, with full pay and benefits, for the duration of the crisis. A paycheck means we can feed our families, but it also means we can keep our training and clearance current so we’re ready to return to work the minute we get the call.

Our industry also needs help to keep our fleets maintained and the system running, through direct government loans. But this can’t be another chance for executives to line their own pockets or funnel profits to Wall Street.

One big reason the airlines are in so much trouble is that over the past 10 years, they’ve spent 96 percent of their free cash on buybacks to juice their stock prices, rather than saving for the future. Aviation unions fought these buybacks. We warned that it would leave the airlines exposed in a downturn, and we were right. We can’t allow that behavior to endanger our industry, our jobs, and our economy again.

That’s why our proposal includes a ban on stock buybacks as a condition of any loans to the aviation industry. At the same time, we’re asking Congress to impose strict prohibitions on dividends and executive bonuses as part of any relief package.

But that’s not all. Companies must agree to honor all existing collective-bargaining agreements. And any company that files for bankruptcy as a result of this crisis must be required to put workers first in bankruptcy.

This approach works uniquely well for major employers—airlines, yes, but also hospitality businesses, manufacturers, and automakers, and firms in many more industries that are in deep trouble today. By using direct grants to keep workers on payroll, we can save millions of workers. Small businesses, gig workers, freelancers, artists, and others will also need a strong safety net in the weeks and months to come; helping them will require other approaches, to supplement these efforts.

We need major help to save our economy. Let’s start by saving as many jobs as we can by using federal funds to keep people on payroll and ready to return to work.

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