Transportation unions blast federal decision to let ‘flag of convenience’ airline fly to U.S., ask Obama to overturn it

WASHINGTON—Transportation unions, particularly in aviation, are blasting an Obama Transportation Department decision to let a cheap “flag of convenience” air carrier, Norwegian Air International, that underpays its workers and breaks its homeland’s labor laws, fly to the U.S. They’re asking the president to overturn DOT’s decision and ban Norwegian.

Protests came from the AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA and the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), as well as domestic air lines and several lawmakers of both political parties.

CWA estimates the decision will cost 300,000 airline jobs. It set up a toll-free hotline for workers to call senators, demanding they veto DOT’s ruling. The number is 855-980-2232. 

Whether Obama will pay attention is unknown. His Transportation Secretary, Anthony Foxx, previously did not. He issued a preliminary ruling for Norwegian months ago and a final decision just before closing time on Dec. 2, when it was guaranteed to get little public notice.

DOT’s top official for international aviation, acting assistant secretary Jenny Rosenberg, claimed “the law” and international treaties “left us no choice” but to approve Norwegian.

Foxx’s new ruling “betrays America’s aviation workers by granting a rogue, flag-of-convenience airline a permit to serve the United States,” said Transportation Trades President Ed Wytkind. He called it a “sweatshop-like airline.”

Added Wytkind: “Unless reversed, this decision threatens a generation of U.S. airline jobs and tells foreign airlines that scour the globe for cheap labor and lax employment laws that America is open for business.

“On behalf of the nation’s several million transportation workers, and especially the men and women who form the backbone of U.S. aviation, I appeal to the president to reverse this decision,” he said.

Sara Nelson, the AFA-CWA president, said Foxx’s ruling for Norwegian not only endangers U.S. aviation jobs, but reminds her of “flag of convenience” sea freight firms, which feature ill-paid or unpaid crews, lax labor standards and few safety requirements.

Letting Norwegian fly into the U.S. “is a betrayal to hundreds of thousands of aviation workers,” she said. DOT “overrides carefully negotiated worker rights and designs a new playbook that rolls out the red carpet for foreign corporations by trampling workers’ rights. This decision puts a rubber stamp of approval on the ‘flag of convenience model’ that destroyed over a hundred thousand U.S. shipping jobs.”

Norwegian advertises cheap flights to and from Europe and already operates a handful of routes, principally in and out of Orlando, Fla. It achieves the fares by hiring low-paid workers from Singapore and Thailand, two nations with lax or no labor standards, and skirting U.S. safety requirements by basing other operations overseas.

The protesting lawmakers, led by Reps. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., and Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J., reiterated those points. They said letting Norwegian fly in and out all over the U.S. also violates the treaty the U.S. negotiated with the European Union years ago.

Section 17(b) of that Open Skies treaty says “opportunities created by the agreement are not intended to undermine labor standards or the labor-related rights and principles contained in the parties’ (nations’) respective laws.’”

“Clearly, a Norwegian-owned airline that is based in Ireland for the purpose of evading Norway’s labor and tax laws, and that will hire crews under Asian contracts, is in violation of these explicit labor protections and should be denied entry into our marketplace. With this decision, the Obama administration failed to enforce the very labor protection it negotiated and sold as a breakthrough in aviation trade policy,” the lawmakers added.

Wytkind noted that NAI’s “blatant disregard for our trade laws” led “unions in the U.S. and Europe, major airlines, and Republican and Democratic members of Congress” to oppose its application to fly here. DeFazio and LoBiondo have gotten 173 congressional colleagues to sign on to legislation banning approval of Norwegian’s application to fly, by invoking the treaty.

“DOT’s decision guaranteed a race to the bottom in our transatlantic aviation market,” said DeFazio, the top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “Norwegian is a virtual airline, set up under a flag of convenience to exploit weak labor laws in other countries like Singapore, save money, and undercut competition.” LoBiondo, co-chair of the GOP House Labor Caucus, called the decision a “slap in the face” to workers.

And ALPA President Capt. Tim Canoll said his union “is considering all options to reverse this action.” He added that “ALPA would never have supported this Air Transport Agreement if we had known how our government would apply it. Given this decision, why should anyone trust the U.S. government to enforce its own trade agreements?” Canoll asked. “While NAI is the first, it is not likely to be the last attempt to flout U.S. policy and labor standards to gain an unfair competitive advantage.”

Source: PAI