Undaunted or Imperilled

August 2005


Anyone who cries "liberal Media" should take a gander at how that media routinely addresses labor issues.

From time to time, a headline in one of those supermarket newspapers catches my eye -- you know the kind I mean: "Elvis seen in Crawford!" or "Osama Buys McDonalds Franchise in Cleveland!"

Those are stupid, but basically harmless. My theory is that most people discount their claims. But the other day I saw the following headline in USA Today: "Northwest Flies Undaunted." This IS stupid, but it is not harmless. It is a perfect example of the low state of unions and workers rights in this nation.

A little background: Northwest Airlines is currently in a labor dispute with their airplane mechanics. The airline says that they can't afford to pay these people what they've been getting, nor pay them basic benefits. They also want to scale back their hours and lay off about a third of them. They could not come to an agreement, so the mechanics went on strike and the airline is trying to break the union with "replacement workers" and other tactics.

Years ago, Bob Newhart had a very funny comedy routine that featured the "Grace L Ferguson Airline and Storm Door Company," which promised cheap travel by "eliminating frills and extras, like maintenance, seats, meals,..." That was very funny stuff, then. Today Northwest is endangering its passengers and trying to get their mechanics to agree to working conditions that actually prevent them from doing their jobs properly, and a national newspaper calls them "undaunted." I can think of lots of other words that would do better: "greedy," "uncaring," "rapacious," and "dangerously irresponsible" come to mind.

It makes me think back to when the union representing air traffic controllers was torpedoed by Ronald Reagan for saying that the skies were increasingly unsafe and nobody seemed to be doing anything about it. They wanted more and better equipment, shorter shifts (but the same hours per week), and larger staffs at busier airports. They got fired, all of them. The government immediately implemented most of the changes that had been demanded by the fired controllers, but they did this practically in secret. Today, the state of air traffic control is in just as bad shape as 24 years ago because the air traffic volumes have caught up to the improvements. Now add to this that all the airlines are watching Northwest like vultures, eager to see how far they can scale back their aircraft maintenance programs.

It's like watching two trains coming from opposite directions on a single track. You know there's going to be a big catastrophe and hundreds of people are going to die. The news media will go into a frenzy and politicians will start pointing fingers in every direction trying to pin blame. They'll slap a few band-aids on the problems and we'll lumber off until the next time several hundred people have to die pointlessly.

The union mechanics at Northwest have the right idea. They need to be given the time and resources to do their jobs properly. They're skilled people we all rely on to keep us safe when we fly. The airline's pursuit of profit should not imperil their passengers. The fact that absolutely no one in the popular press has been saying this, or anything like it, points to a single, inescapable conclusion about the mainstream media. Any society whose free press becomes the mouthpiece for the powerful minority will retain the trappings of democracy perhaps, but the reality of it will slip away.

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