February 22, 2007
Uh-oh. Nice guy airline JetBlue got itself in a tub of icy water this past week when its tightly-wound, just-in-time operation came unraveled. Amid freezing conditions, JetBlue managed to strand thousands of passengers on runway tarmacs, and left many more—some for days—in the hellish limbo where unwanted fliers wait, patiently or not.
Blue has offered up nonstop public contrition, millions of dollars in compensation and a hastily assembled passengers’ bill of rights. All well and good. But it won’t be enough to stop the next disaster, because under its leatherette seats, personal LCD screens and smartly attentive staff, JetBlue is a cheapskate, union-hating, understaffed operation. There is no slack for emergencies because people already work as long as possible, and there are no planes in reserve.
This is not to say that JetBlue is so different from other airlines. The company’s Chairman, CEO and founder, David Neeleman, learned the business at Southwest, which also squeezes out every dollar. And the older “heritage” airlines are trying the best they can to emulate the Southwest-JetBlue model. But most of the airlines, including Southwest, remain union, and employees are sometimes able to work human-scale hours.
The funny thing is, Neeleman styles himself as something of a progressive, and does all he can to make JetBlue a good-guy company. To find out how good, I went to BuyBlue (no relation), a website that reveals how blue companies are—as in blue state, red state—and urges readers to reward the good ones. Actually, BuyBlue doesn’t say very much about JetBlue: one positive news story (on their willingness to disinfect the drinking water), one negative story (in 2002, the airline gave five million passenger records to a Defense Department contractor). But the site does note that airline officers gave twice as much to Democrats as to Republicans. And, 23 percent of JetBlue stock is owned by one of the world’s richest liberals, George Soros.
So, JetBlue joins the ranks of other forward-looking, union-busting companies, like Whole Foods, Microsoft and Powell's Books. All talk a good game of social justice, but all of them fought unionization as hard as Wal-Mart ever did. Powell’s eventually signed a union contract, but not Microsoft, not Whole Foods and not JetBlue.
It’s not an accident. Let’s hear what Mr. Neeleman had to say about unions to the San Francisco:
Q: Would you resist a labor-organizing effort at JetBlue?
A: We would. I love American history, and I've studied it. I understand we had a big need for unions in this country. You basically had unscrupulous people who were building companies on the backs of their people without giving them health care and without giving them other benefits. They made them take on hazardous jobs and work long hours.
We aren't one of those companies. We don't do that to our people.
We don't want a third party who may or may not have our best interests in mind or our crew members’ best interests in mind because they may be serving a union of one of our competitors. They are trying to equalize us and take away our competitive advantage.
Neeleman could have been reading a script written by Jackson/Lewis, the Burke Group or any of hundreds of other “union-avoidance” firms. But pay special attention to the key words in the last sentence: “equalize” and “competitive advantage.” In short, “we don’t want to pay them any more or let them work shorter shifts.”
The airline industry is being pushed to the limit, and the fault certainly doesn’t lie with Neeleman alone. But no airline entrepreneur will bargain with workers’ organizations on an equality as long as they believe that success comes only by squeezing out every nickel.
When I started flying, airline fares were heavily regulated. Tickets were like legal tender and could usually be switched from one airline to another, since the cost was almost always the same. Were Americans less happy because air fares were somewhat higher than they are now? Did businesses complain because last-minute trips cost no more than ones booked three weeks in advance? Were pilots, crew and air traffic controllers more stressed because they brought home a living wage and worked limited hours?
Business will not take the first step in halting our dash toward a low-wage economy. David Neeleman and his peers would rather pay out $30 million than lose his “competitive advantage” by treating workers as equals.
Unless we re-regulate our major industries and back our unions, we will pay the price of breakdowns, plunging morale, more turnover. We are building more and more fragility into our society at a time when we will be tested by the rise of the developing world and by climate change. This is not security. This is pending disaster.
And the next time, it may not be an excruciating wait on a marooned plane. It could easily be a multi-plane pileup. And that’s not competitive.