Should Socially Conscious Consumers Fly Jet Blue?

by Randy Shaw on August 25, 2005

The non-union, low-budget Jet Blue airlines has a hip image, and its lower fares and access to multiple television stations has made it popular with consumers. But just as Nike’s progressive image obscured its reliance on sweatshop labor, Jet Blue’s low fares come at a steep price: the elimination of thousands of living wage airline industry jobs. Progressives who have a problem with Walmart should be equally troubled by the facts behind the “bargain fares” of Jet Blue.

The mechanics strike at Northwest Airlines has exposed a dirty little secret about the popular airline, Jet Blue: it is a driving force behind the Walmartization of the airline industry. Jet Blue achieves its low fares by maintaining a non-union work force in the heavily unionized airline industry and by outsourcing its mechanics jobs to low-wage countries like El Salvador.

While Jet Blue is often linked to Southwest Airlines as the two low-cost carriers whose fortunes rose while United, Northwest, and American airlines fell, Southwest is unionized. Jet Blue mirrors Walmart by achieving its lower prices at the expense of worker salaries.

As Walmart has reduced workers wages and benefits in the supermarket industry, so has Jet Blue helped move the airline industry toward what Northwest Airlines CEO described in the August 22 New York Times as a “new business model.” This model at Northwest will involve firing 2000 employees and embracing the “efficient” maintenance systems used by Jet Blue.

Not surprisingly, “efficiency” in this case means contracting out the heavy maintenance work to outside contractors. According to a member of the mechanics union to whom I spoke, Jet Blue uses outside contractors based in El Salvador, long a venue for sweatshop labor for American apparel companies.

Despite its role in driving down the wages of unionized airline employees, Jet Blue’s negative impacts have only recently come to light and a corporate accountability campaign against Jet Blue has not emerged. One reason for this could be that the mechanics of United and Northwest left the Machinists Union and joined AMFA, a union solely for mechanics that is not affiliated with the AFL-CIO (or the newly formed Change to Win).

The mechanics thus isolated themselves from other unions, just as the air traffic controllers union did when broke from other unions to endorse Ronald Reagan in the 1980 Presidential race. When Reagan dissolved the union and fired all of its workers in 1981, some in organized labor felt the controllers got what they deserved.

But Jet Blue’s impact goes beyond mechanics, and salaries and benefits for unionized pilots, stewards, baggage handlers and reservation clerks have already begun bearing the brunt of having to compete with the low-wage, non-union carrier.

While consumer savings on particular items at Walmart may not be great, the annual lump sum savings over time likely equals the difference in airfares between Jet Blue and its unionized competition. So those unwilling to save money by supporting Walmart’s low-wage, anti-union business model should apply the same reasoning and avoid flying Jet Blue.

In its employee recruitment pitch, Jet Blue claims to be an airline with a “real vision” for the future. Unfortunately, it is a vision for labor, like Walmart’s, that looks toward the 19th rather than the 21st century.

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