Senate Republican filibuster halts airline workers' aid

WASHINGTON, D.C. - In a blow to workers, the U.S. Senate sustained a GOP filibuster against legislation to immediately aid some 150,000 laid-off aviation industry workers, including thousands of Pacific Northwest Boeing workers, who will lose their jobs as a result of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

Senate Bill 1454, authored by Senator Jean Carnahan, D-Mo., had enough votes to pass Oct. 11, but 44 Republicans wouldn't allow it to go to a vote.

Republican leader Trent Lott of Mississippi led a filibuster, which AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said was backed by President George W. Bush.

Supporters of the Carnahan bill needed 60 votes to cut off the talkathon but could muster only 56. All 50 Democratic senators voted to end the filibuster and immediately consider the Carnahan amendment. They were joined by five Republicans and one Independent.

Oregon Republican Senator Gordon Smith was not among the supporters to end the filibuster.

"All of the other Republican senators turned their backs on the workers in America's airline industry by voting to continue the filibuster," said the AFL-CIO.

"The clock is ticking, and these workers facing layoffs cannot wait," said Senator Patty Murray, D-Wash., in speech on the Senate floor pleading with her colleagues to grant the worker aid. "We are sending a terrible message that it is more important to care about corporations and shareholders than workers," said Senator Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.

Now, for the second time since the Sept. 11 attacks, "Republicans promised they would deal with the unsavory issue of economically-devastated families at some date to be named later," said the Washington State Labor Council (WSLC).

This even as airlines are cashing their checks from the $15 billion bailout Congress managed to grant almost immediately after the attacks. The WSLC pointed out that since the bailout was approved, none of the airlines have revised their original layoff estimates and many are refusing to pay severance packages.

S 1454 would have provided extra jobless benefits, subsidies for health insurance purchases, and retraining aid for the airline workers.

"It is especially shameful that the White House, which lobbied furiously against relief, and 44 Republican senators would undermine majority support and turn our nation's back on aviation workers whose jobs and livelihoods were directly destroyed by the attacks," Sweeney said.

To help laid-off workers, Bush unveiled a $75 billion aid plan which extended jobless benefits by 13 weeks - to 39 weeks overall - and provided partial federal funding for COBRA health insurance purchases by workers who lost their jobs.

But the AFL-CIO noted the qualifications for the extra jobless money are much too high, and that company-sponsored health insurance - if it exists - costs $500-$700 per month.

The measure contains most of President Bush's "economic stimulus" proposal to accelerate the tax cuts passed last year that heavily favored the wealthy, to create permanent new tax breaks for corporations, and, according to some reports, to repeal the alternative minimum tax that is designed to prevent corporations from exploiting tax law loopholes to avoid paying any tax at all. Bush's jobless plan "falls far short of what's needed" by the jobless workers, Sweeney said, because more than 90 percent of it is in permanent tax cuts for business.

At a press conference at Portland International Airport Oct. 4, Oregon AFL-CIO President Tim Nesbitt said the Sept. 11-related job cuts in the Portland area affected not only hundreds of pilots, flight attendants and ground crews, but now extend to 297 engineers and machinists at Boeing in Gresham and to potentially 50 food service workers employed by Sky Chef at PDX who are members of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 9. Other airline/airport workers in Eugene and Medford will also face layoffs.

Nesbitt said the average unemployment benefit in Oregon is $250 a week "The average cost for family health insurance is $583 per month, or $135 a week," he said. "For many laid-off workers, maintaining health insurance is a practical impossibility. It will cost them more than half of their unemployment checks."

Nesbitt said that if Congress can find the resources to bail out the airlines and their shareholders, "it's only fair that they provide an economic safety net for the hundreds of thousands of workers and their families who are losing their jobs in the airline and airport sectors." Organized labor is urging support of S 1454 and House Resolutions 2946 and 2595, all of which provide extended unemployment insurance benefits and financial assistance to sustain health insurance.

(Editor's Note: Press Associates Inc. and the WSLC Web site contributed to this report.)

October 19, 2001 issue

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