When you hear ‘poverty wages’ you immediately think of dishwashers, janitors and farm hands—down and dirty jobs on the ground. We do not think of jobs in the airline industry, but increasingly the jobs that are up in the air are crash-landing in today’s economy—mechanics, pilots and airline attendants at Republic Airways for example.
Republic mechanics have been hammered by an overtime wage system that prevents them from being compensated at the same rates as their fellow mechanics in other airlines. Under the Railway Labor Act (RLA), airline mechanics are compensated differently from the normal worker’s 40-hour a week standard. Without a union contract to iron out the inherent problems with the RLA, these mechanics must work long hours and travel long distances in order to make a wage at the expense of their rest.
Weary mechanics under the pressure of management to get planes in the air run the risk of making mistakes, which may jeopardize safety. Because of the pressure of the Teamsters and the organizing campaign, they have corrected some of the overtime problems, but not all of them. The good safety record of Republic Airways is the result of mechanics taking pride in their work.
The mechanics are seeking to join the Teamsters, but Republic’s management has grounded them with anti-union tactics. The juvenile anti-union tactics we have seen in other industries is happening in the hangers: union supporters are harassed and intimidated for wearing their Teamster t-shirts and posting union messages, all practices that are legally supported by the RLA.
The pilots and flight attendants, working with the Teamsters, continue fighting because Republic Airways is not willing to pay the pilots and flight attendants a living wage. The pilots have been at the bargaining table since 2007 in an attempt to update their 2003 contract. The attendants have faced the same stall tactics for the last two years.
The wages do not even get off the run way. One co-pilot shared with me that he makes only $32,000 a year after several years with the company. Starting salaries for flight attendants qualify them for food stamps, in many cases. A mechanic who used to work for Northwest makes less than half as much with Republic.
For those of us on the ground, the airline industry has always been a place where mechanics and attendants could make a good wage, and pilots had a reputation for high salaries. But at Republic, their wages and standards are stuck on the tarmac.
The Rev. Darren Cushman Wood is senior pastor of North United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, after eleven years at Speedway United Methodist Church and is president of IWJ's Board of Directors.