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There's an explanation for all this

by Richard Mellor Saturday, Sep. 24, 2005 at 12:53 PM

“It will be a hard pill for many Americans to swallow--the idea of doing with less so that big business can have more...Nothing that this nation, or any other nation, has done in modern economic history compares with the selling job that must be done to make people except this reality.” (Business Week 10-12-74.)

In announcing the elimination of some 9000 jobs this week, Delta Airlines CEO, Gerald Grinstein, reminds those remaining that Delta needs, “every ounce of your proven professionalism.” This is despite the uncertainty, the stress, not knowing from one day to the next whether you’ll have enough to keep a roof over your head. And the greatest fear: will I be next?

On the whole, even in such a hostile environment, that can only be described as workplace terrorism (the type of terrorism that Bush, and the entire capitalist class promotes rather than objects to) workers do their jobs with courtesy and great diligence. Being a flight attendant for instance is a grueling job that takes it toll on one’s health and personal life. The employers always point to the perks and the benefits of being able to fly here or there but increasingly, the benefits of what was once a decent job by US standards are being eliminated, including the possibility of a decent retirement. Like many workers today, flight attendants are finding that they can’t afford to live where they work.

Whenever I fly the friendly skies, something I have had to do fairly often these days, I always talk to the flight attendants whenever they have a free moment and assuming I am not intruding. These men and women have seen their standard of living decline considerably over the past period. One attendant I talked to on a United Airlines flight to the UK told me that in the last two years her salary had declined by 20%. Something I didn’t know was that they only get their full pay when flying. One attendant told me that until that plane leaves the gate they are paid .65 an hour. Delays and holdups have serious consequences; it’s time in the air that counts.

All the flight attendants I talked to were very angry at their Union and the Pilots Union in particular. And many of them, like much of the rank and file of organized labor, believed that the reason that the their Union wasn’t fighting for them was that their Union Officials are corrupt. “The negotiating team have the most seniority and just take care of their own interests” one woman told me. However, there is general agreement when I raise the point that the union leaders are not so much corrupt in the criminal sense but that they are ideologically corrupt, meaning they accept the employers’ view of the world and their worship of the market. Consequently, their policies flow from this world-view. But as always, the idea that we have to change the leadership of our unions seems such a daunting task; it’s opening up a war on two fronts one worker told me; and he was correct of course.

But it doesn’t take much to release the anger that lies beneath the surface in US society. And this anger dwells not only in the hearts of the poorest and organizationally weakest of the working class. Trade Union officials are so busy propping up the market economy that they can’t possible validate and organize this anger. Consequently much of it is internalized or directed toward other sections of the working class, the poor, youth, the prison population or immigrants. This unorganized anger is also reflected in the breakdown of personal relations, drug abuse, alcoholism etc.

What is lacking in society is a mass force that would not only organize resistance to the employers, uniting the working class in the process, but would also arm workers in the ideological offensive against capital. There is no fiscal crisis; there is no shortage of money and resources. It is the economic foundation of society that is the source of the problem; the way production is organized. Working people are interested in these ideas when they are raised in a way that links them to objective reality and the need to survive in this world. Working people are not hostile to an alternative to the market either, to genuine socialist ideas; after all, it means a job and a future for ourselves and our children.

The airline industry is a prime example of the crisis of capitalism---of a market economy. Like most industries there is too much capacity in the airline business---too many planes chasing too few passengers. As Marx explained, overcapacity, or what he termed overproduction, is an inherent destructive contradiction in a capitalist economy that cannot be overcome. Because the productive forces, (the means of producing the necessities of human life) are owned by private individuals as opposed to collectively, and are set in motion by the quest of these individuals for personal profit, workers cannot buy back what we produce, there is always excess, in this case, airline seats. This is because the profit that the private owners of the productive forces seek with such rapaciousness has its source in the labor process; the employers pay us less value in wages than the value we produce by working for them, whether that value is in the form of autos, steel, or passenger aircraft.

The employers champion their private sector and the individual entrepreneur. They laud its efficiency yet it is to the working public that they turn when their system fails them, which is more often than not. In order to keep the airline bosses pockets filled, and to paint a stable face on an unstable system, the US government has taken billions from the US working class. It has taken it in the form of workplace terrorism through firings and cuts; it has also taken it in the form of state assistance to the tune of billions of dollars from an administration that opposes “big government”. From the Savings and Loan fiasco of the nineties to the failed businesses of the present, big business has no problem with public ownership when it comes to their own losses.

This hypocrisy is well represented in the airline industry. US airlines have received to billion in public subsidies over the past four years on top of eliminating 300,000 jobs. Technological advances such as Internet booking has also increased the productivity of labor. But like the introduction of ATM’s in the banking industry, workers as workers and as the general public do not benefit from these technological advances; we do not own the banking industry and we do not own the airlines

The US airlines bosses have used the state that they control to protect their profits during a period of extreme overcapacity. In the restructuring, US airlines like Delta, while reducing domestic capacity will increase its operations internationally. In the world market, revenue growth over the last year has increased 17% as opposed to 6.3% in the US according to the Financial Times and they see profit to be made. So the overcapacity destroying the domestic market will be exported oversees exacerbating overcapacity in the international airline industry. This raises concern among foreign capitalists. “The US airlines are dumping capacity on the north Atlantic distorting competition…” outgoing British Airways CEO Rod Eddington tells his buddies at an Aviation Club lunch in London. Eddington, wary of losing his free ride, wants US carriers to savage American workers even further. There are three hundred carriers in the world Eddington argues and the world doesn’t need them. Accommodating US capacity threatens his business and he wants more blood to spilled state side; workers’ blood that is.

The BA CEO chides his US counterparts “The lessons America has been imposing on third world markets with an almost pitiless ferocity apply to America just as much” he tells his lunch guests. There needs to be more US victims of this “pitiless ferocity” he is pointing out if the world is to be a safe place for making money. His criticism and accusations of US hypocrisy are correct of course but what madness.

Working people are the victims of this “pitiless ferocity” The environment is a victim of this “pitiless ferocity” The recent victims of Hurricane Katrina and the Asian Tsunami are its victims. And the source of this pitiless ferocity is the so-called free market.

The recent setbacks that workers in the airline industry have endured are not the end of the matter, some time ago, Business Week, the big business journal wrote:

“It will be a hard pill for many Americans to swallow--the idea of doing with less so that big business can have more...Nothing that this nation, or any other nation, has done in modern economic history compares with the selling job that must be done to make people except this reality.” (Business Week 10-12-74.)

In many ways, the capitalist class has been pretty successful with their selling job. They have been successful due to the role of the trade union leaders in helping them sell it and the absence of an independent working class party committed to challenging capitalism. But in conversations I have had with workers and recently flight attendants, they did not seemed so opposed to an alternative proposition, public ownership of the airline industry under workers’ control and management. It makes sense to any thinking worker that the technological advances developed by human labor and used in the production of our necessities of life, should be owned by us, should be used to increase our leisure time, and enable us to participate in the management of work and our global society. The greatest obstacle to this I find is not the rejection of such a notion but the view that it is utopian and cannot be realized. “It’s a good idea, but…” is a frequent retort. Not surprisingly, the idea of keeping one’s job is always an incentive for agreement.

This is a more positive than negative response and reflects the absence of leadership in society. Other positive developments that ultimately affect the thinking of all workers (as well as the capitalists) is the increased opposition to the “pitiless ferocity” of global capitalism. There have been major offensives against global capitalism particularly in Latin America and other parts of the former colonial world. The recent rejection of the free market European Constitution by French and Dutch workers as well as the recent elections in Germany are also a blow to their offensive, to what the US bourgeois refers to as “Full Spectrum Dominance.” And then there’s Iraq.

As one observer and an individual participant in the struggle against capitalism I think that we are turning a corner. That there is potential for increased struggles against the bosses and their system that can and will result in small but significant victories along the road to the social transformation. Of course, there is always the potential for social explosions to arise around all sorts of issues. Participating in these struggles on the ground and not just explaining events is crucial if we are to be part of what can be an exciting and rewarding period.

Richard Mellor


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