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This Day in Labor History: May 17, 1986

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On May 17, 1986, flight attendants organized in the Independent Federation of Flight Attendants gave up on their two-month long strike against Trans World Airlines after its new owner, the vile Carl Icahn, tried to take back their wages and benefits. It was another symbol of the near impossibility of workers winning strikes in the bad 1980s as the neoliberal era overtook America.

Flight attendants had organized for their rights since just after World War II. Hard struggles followed, with opposition or indifference from both employers and the other male-dominated unions in the industry. TWA flight attendants had first unionized in 1947. By the 1980s, flight attendants had established strong unions and won major gains. As for the airline industry in the 1980s, the PATCO defeat put a pall on its unions, as it did for the rest of American unions. But while the 1980s was a terrible time for the American labor movement, it was also a period of struggle.

Meanwhile, the same forces that encouraged both the government and private industry to bust unions also created the conditions for vulture capitalists to make money by taking over companies and forcing workers to give back their hard-earned wages and benefits so that the rich could buy another ivory backscratcher. On top of that, airline deregulation from the Carter administration opened the door for new entries into the industry and said corporate raiding.

Carl Icahn bought TWA in 1985. It was already in trouble by then due to poor management. For Icahn, owning TWA meant stripping it of all assets and then shutting it down. He had no compunction about what this would mean for the many thousands of workers. He just didn’t care. They were losers and he was a winner. One of the first things Icahn did was target union contracts. He demanded huge givebacks from the flight attendants. They refused. They had fought hard for those wages and benefits after all. For the attendants, they really felt as if they were being asked to give back 25 years of gains. And indeed they were. Many attendants could not imagine continuing in the job with what Icahn was demanding. They also correctly noted that Icahn was demanding a lot more in givebacks from the primarily female labor force in the flight attendants that he was for the almost all-male unions in the Machinists and the Pilots. In the end, Icahn agreed to “only” cut salaries by 17 percent instead of 22 percent but not give on the possibility of a reduced work force due to changed work rules.

On March 7, 1986, TWA’s 6,500 flight attendants went on strike. Icahn immediately said he would replace strikers permanently. Technically, the Supreme Court had made this move legal in 1938 with the Mackay case, but until the late 70s, almost no employer actually did it. After all, employers wanted to have an experienced workforce and in the era of strong unions, preferred to settle the strike and bring the workers back. Icahn didn’t care about any of that. The previous six years had demonstrated the power employers had in bringing in non-union workers permanently. So this was Icahn’s choice. He told them before the strike, “If you leave, you are never coming back.” He immediately started hiring scabs. New workers did not hesitate in applying for these jobs either.

The strikers simply had no real chance of winning. This wasn’t for anything the flight attendants did wrong. But all accounts, they hung tough, did not cave, showed a lot of solidarity. But Icahn didn’t care. He was happy to wait them out. He was surprised by their solidarity. He and his advisers assumed 20 percent or so of workers would cross the picket lines immediately. But almost no one did that. The attendants tried to provide information for new hires to tell them not to take their jobs, but to limited effect. They tried a corporate campaign, picketing at the homes and offices of Icahn’s investors. They tried to keep passengers off the planes as well, telling flyers it was unsafe without them. The pilots were terrible, showing almost no solidarity. Many even served drinks on flights. The Machinists were OK at best. IAM head Wimpy Winpisinger, one of the most progressive union leaders of the time, only agreed to leave it up to individual members to support the strike. Many did and TWA tried to fight off an IAM sympathy strike. The airline had a favorable judge willing to tell the Machinists to knock it off with a preliminary injunction, undermining this critical strategy. TWA simply did what they wanted. They replaced almost the whole labor force, got rid of paid union representatives, closed union offices on TWA property, and changed work rules.

Finally, on May 17, they agreed to end the strike. Icahn still refused to hire most of the workers back. He would bring them back when job openings appeared, but he was not going to fire the scabs so they could go back to work. Once the union announced its willingness to go back to work, the company could no longer legally replace them, but how to bring them back to work was hardly clear. In fact, of the 6,500 strikers, only 200 were immediately given their jobs back. Over the next three years, 5,000 of them would return to TWA, but for some of these workers, it meant being outside their profession for over three years. Moreover, other than the initial 200, not a single flight attendant was rehired in 1986. The IFFA started a “boycott of conscious,” trying to get high-minded people to not fly on TWA, but this was not a powerful strategy. The IFFA also filed age and sex discrimination charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but at this time Clarence Thomas headed the EEOC and, yep, these charges were dismissed almost immediately.

Icahn of course was a complete ass during all of this. When Ms. Magazine ran an article on IFFA head Vicki Frankovich, Icahn found Gloria Steinem and got very angry with her for telling American workers that this woman he thought was horrible was seen as some great leader.

I covered this strike in the LGM Film Club early in the series (though the link I used then is no longer functional), but here’s the documentary about the strike made in 1987 during the period when the IFFA was attempting to get the jobs back for its members.

In the aftermath of the flight attendants strike, Icahn spent the next 15 years destroying TWA. In 2001, it finally sold out to American Airlines.

This post borrowed from Sandra Albrecht, The Assault on Labor: The 1986 TWA Strike and the Decline of Workers’ Rights in America.

This is the 393rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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