What follows is Peter Rachleff’s letter to José Arturo Ibarra, a San Francisco-based Northwest flight attendant who successfully led the fight to reject the contract that demanded “a 30 and 40 percent cut in pay and benefits” and givebacks on everything from health insurance to work rules. — Ed.
I have been meaning to write to you — and to your sister and brother NWA flight attendants — ever since I learned of your vote rejecting the contract proposal. As a labor historian and activist based in the Twin Cities, I have long closely followed the labor situation at Northwest Airlines.
While this self-appointed task has been largely grim, I have also been rewarded, on the one hand, with valuable insights into the evolution of corporate management strategies in this post-Keynesian, post-social contract era, which some have termed “neo-liberalism,” and, on the other hand, I have been rewarded by glimpses of dignity, self-respect, sacrifice, love, solidarity, and determination on the part of workers.
When so many elements of our culture promote and praise selfishness, materialism, and accommodation to the corporate agenda, it has been reassuring, even inspiring, to see workers stand up for what they think is right, for fairness and justice. I thank you and your colleagues for this, not only from my intellectual, professional, and political vantage point, but from the bottom of my heart.
As I have witnessed your efforts for more than a decade to preserve the positive qualities of your jobs, your wages, benefits, work-rules, and workplace rights, I have been struck by how ironic it is that labor historians and scholars like me have used the term “rank-and-file” to characterize union members.
With its origins in military language, this term suggests standing and marching in line, under the direction of others.
When it has come to the Northwest Airlines flight attendants (and mechanics, I hasten to add), this is a radical misnomer! Working flight attendants, the “rank-and-file,” have long been the leaders of your own union. Individually, you have refused to give in to management and media-generated fear that you might lose your jobs, your economic security, your ability to integrate your work lives with your family and personal lives.
Collectively, you have refused to accept management demands that you have deemed unjust, unnecessary, and draconian. And you have pushed one union organization after another, one cohort of leaders after another, to do their jobs, to provide you with the resources (organizational, informational, strategic) which you need to protect yourselves.
Back in the mid-1980s when corporate management throughout the U.S. began to demand that their unionized employees take “concessions,” accept wage and benefit cuts, work rule changes, weaker union representation on the job, and more (or should I say “less”?), a friend of mine, then the president of the UAW local at St. Paul’s Ford plant, came into a meeting of union activists with a plastic toy gun whose barrel had been bent backwards, so that the person holding the gun was positioned as the target of the gun. “This,” he said, “is what our employers want from us.”
Mechanics and flight attendants at NWA might not have been sure of what strategies would bring positive results, but you have refused to pick up that gun, refused to do management’s bidding and shoot yourselves. This is the necessary first step. And, as another activist I met in those years said, “Your dignity can never be taken away from you. To lose it, you have to give it away.” Such simple lessons, yet so hard for so many to absorb and practice. You are teaching us — college professors, auto workers, clerical workers, meatpacking workers, public employees, all of us — these lessons.
Every time that some group of workers — the Hormel meatpackers in the mid-1980s, the Pittston coal miners in the late 1980s, the Staley Corn Processing workers in the early 1990s, the Detroit newspaper workers in the mid-1990s, the University of Minnesota clerical workers only a couple of years ago, the NWA mechanics last year, and, now, you — has taken a stand against corporate greed and injustice and for fairness and equality, other workers have rallied to their cause.
Last year, NWA mechanics received tens of thousands of dollars of support from Midwestern workers who were inspired by their stand. Many of these working women and men refused to fly Northwest Airlines, and some of them even participated in a Northwest Workers Solidarity Committee and joined mechanics on their picket lines. As you know, there were unions and labor federations which refused to support the mechanics, hiding behind a lot of vapid excuses. But working women and men, in unions and not in unions, understood what the mechanics were being asked to swallow, and they respected and supported their refusal to pick up that plastic gun with the twisted barrel.
I am confident that your stand will inspire even greater support. You live in communities all across the country, and your neighbors know how hard you work, how your jobs take you away from your families and communities, how you have struggled to maintain a living wage and adequate benefits. You meet passengers face-to-face and we, those passengers, depend on you not merely for our creature comforts but for the safety of our very lives, every time we walk onto one of your airplanes.
Unionists of all sorts respect the ways that you have managed to organize, via internet, via phone trees, via CAT teams, even though you face the challenge of rarely working in large groups together, of rarely even being in the same city together for a union meeting. Your diverse membership — women and men, white, black, Asian-American, Latino, straight and gay, single and married, young and old — offers all of us hope that we can put aside the differences among us that don’t matter and concentrate on the important things that we share. You are a model, an inspiration, for a labor movement that is struggling, desperately, to recover from more than twenty-five years of corporate attack.
How opportune that your vote to refuse to hold that plastic gun with the twisted barrel has come on the 25th anniversary of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers’ Organization (PATCO) strike, which signaled the beginning of what the then-president of the national UAW termed a “one-sided class war in America.” That tragic event, which saw more than 11,000 hardworking women and men lose their jobs in order for Ronald Reagan to make a point, a point which inspired American corporate leaders to tear up the social contract that they had made with their workers over the past half century, issued in this current era. In this era, workers’ productivity goes up, but their benefits fall; corporate profits go up, but workers’ economic security is shattered; executive compensation skyrockets, while workers’ wages fall.
Under these policies and practices, the United States has become the most unequal advanced industrial society in the world.
Your stand gives us all an opportunity to say “No more!” Your example empowers us to refuse to pick up that plastic gun with the twisted barrel, and it sets us, all of us, on the path of finding a strategy to turn this society back around. Along the way, on that path, we must — we will – find each other. Thank you for showing us the way.
Love and Solidarity,
Professor of History
St. Paul, Minnesota
This letter originally appeared in the Monthly Review’s online edition.