April 27, 2016 — Aviation is about people: We move lives. In the midst of a national discussion about trade benefiting multinational corporations rather than the people who move America with good jobs, the Obama administration issued a shocking ruling that could put every U.S. aviation employee at risk.
On April 15, 2016, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) tentatively approved a foreign air carrier permit for an Irish-flag subsidiary of Norwegian Air International (NAI). NAI is seeking to establish a “flag of convenience” carrier certified in Ireland in order to hire flight crew from Asia and avoid Norway’s labor laws – a flagrant violation of Article 17 bis of the U.S.-EU Open Skies agreement.
Article 17 bis conveys the intent of the agreement to foster healthy competition while respecting the labor laws of each carrier’s home country by acknowledging the benefits that occur when “open markets are accompanied by high labor standards.”
The U.S.-EU Open Skies agreement was heralded for its labor protections of Article 17 bis—it’s the only open skies agreement with such provisions. It specifically states that “opportunities created by the Agreement are not intended to undermine labor standards or the labor-related rights and principles contained in the Parties' respective laws.”
The labor provisions in the agreement are meant to protect worker’s established statutory rights against the threat of carriers shopping around for cheap labor. This illegal activity undermines fair competition and poses a serious threat to the airline industry and aviation jobs in the U.S. It establishes a dangerous precedent allowing foreign carriers to circumvent strong labor laws in favor of cheap labor from countries with few worker protections. The DOT chose to ignore the clear language of Article 17 bis and put the interests of corporations ahead of workers.
When the DOT denied NAI’s application for an exception to allow the carrier to operate while the decision was pending, the department explained the additional time was warranted due to the serious legal implications raised by Article 17 bis. Yet in the tentative decision, the DOT found that the labor provisions are not a legitimate basis for denying a permit if the carrier meets the DOT’s “normal standards.” In other words, the DOT spent almost two years of taxpayer time and money out of concern over the labor provisions in the agreement only to conclude that the labor provisions do not actually matter as long as everything else is in order. The message from the administration to American aviation workers is clear: everything matters except you.
American workers are at a disadvantage due to the DOT’s rigid appeals process, which effectively tasks the agency with deciding whether to contradict itself – a highly unlikely outcome, to say the least. This is another example of a failure to enforce the trade agreements sold to the American people and our representatives in Congress.
American workers deserve strong job protections in foreign trade agreements. And, they deserve an administration working on their behalf, rather than rhetorically masking profiteering by multinational corporations like NAI that seek to violate their own country’s labor rights by shopping for the lowest labor standards.
Congress must affirm that the labor protections negotiated in the U.S.-EU Agreement are meaningful and not just a facade. Failure to do so will have catastrophic consequences for aviation workers across the country who work tirelessly every day ensuring that the flying public enjoys the safest aviation system in the world. Aviation moves America. Let’s lift the lives of the American people by enforcing our agreements that promote good jobs.
Nelson is the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, representing over 50,000 flight attendants at 18 airlines.