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On the Ground: Labor Struggle in the American Airline Industry

Author(s):Orenic, Liesl Miller
Reviewer(s):Boyd Jr., Lawrence W.

Published by EH.NET (August 2009)

Liesl Miller Orenic, On the Ground: Labor Struggle in the American Airline Industry. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2009. xiv +281 pp. $25 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-252-076727-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Lawrence W. Boyd, Jr., Center for Labor Education and Research, University of Hawaii at West Oahu.

Works of labor history can be extremely useful to economic historians; On the Ground is one of these. Like other good labor histories, On the Ground provides a detailed history of institutions, regulatory regimes, technological evolution, and the development of the division of labor, wages and working conditions in the airline industry. This is an extremely useful work for those interested in the development of new industries, and high technology industries in particular.

Economists, when they think about this industry, analyze the deregulation of routes and fares. As this book makes clear, there were essentially two regulatory regimes governing this industry. The Civil Aeronautics Board, which regulated routes, fares and other aspects of air travel, and the Railway Labor Act, which regulated labor and unions. This book offers an excellent history of the interaction of these two regimes on the industry.

Liesl Orenic, an associate professor of history and the director of American Studies at Dominican University, narrates the development of the airline industry in the context of government intervention and regulation. Major modern carriers ? some still operating today, such as United, Northwestern, and American Airlines ? had their origins in airmail contracts awarded in the 1920s. Along with these routes awarded to private carriers, the Post Office set up navigational aids, landing fields, and weather services. This was the profitable service that made the development of passenger service possible in the 1930s.

I had assumed that much of the technological development in this industry would have been driven by military demand. This was not the case, at least prior to World War II. Postal service contracts led to bigger and better planes for carriers. The development of the Douglas DC-3, which began to fly in 1936, made passenger service profitable. It carried twenty-one passengers; 33 percent more passengers than the DC-2, with operating cost only ten percent greater. It was constructed for American Airlines and funded through a line of credit from the federal government?s Reconstruction Finance Corporation.

There were two reasons advanced for regulation that began in the 1920s ? maintenance of navigational aids and basic standards of operation on the part of companies to insure passenger safety. The Bureau of Aeronautics, under the Commerce Department, took over regulatory functions from the Post Office in 1927. In 1938, President Roosevelt signed the Civil Aeronautics Act into law, and it in turn regulated air traffic, safety guidelines and commercial competition by creating the Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA). The act also placed labor relations under the Railway Labor Act. (In 1940 an offshoot of the CAA, called the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), was created to carry out many of these functions.)

The Railway Labor Act meant that airline unions would organize on a craft, or occupational, basis. On the Ground is very good at demonstrating how this worked. Unlike, say, the auto industry, where all the workers in a company would belong to one union and be covered by one labor contract, unions in the airline industry organized on the basis of occupation. This led to confusion as to how to categorize occupations by management, the unions, and the National Mediation Board, which administered union elections and mediated labor, intra-labor and management conflicts. Thus there was intra-union competition between a number of unions to represent baggage handlers, and confusion as to whether baggage handlers were clerks or porters on the part of the Board. And then there was union-management conflict.

Orenic traces this basic story line through to 1970, as technological developments continued at a rapid pace. Not only were new planes developed and routes lengthened, but there were technological advances in their loading, and in the airports themselves that all worked in favor of making this a central industry in the development of the American economy. One strength of this work is that small details allow a sharp-eyed reader to pick up on grand themes in economic development. For instance West Coast mail recipients noticed airmail reduced the time letters reached them from the East Coast from a week or more to three days. The first non-stop transcontinental flights in turn shortened passenger trips between the coasts to nine hours from three to four days by rail. Jets reduced this even further, to five hours. And the author also reports ticket prices and other economic information such as wages and the proportion of labor costs in the industry. (A one-way ticket between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City cost $60 in 1926 ? equivalent to $731 today).

The final chapters of the book trace developments through to 1970. This includes the introduction of jets beginning in 1957 and some interesting development in containerization that coincided with that development. The labor force nearly doubled between 1960 and 1970 as a result of growth in air travel. Despite growth in employment, the work force remained overwhelmingly white. (Orenic reports the proportion of blacks rose from 5 to 6 percent.) She also points out how difficult the Railway Labor Act made it for blacks and many others to move up in the industry. Each occupation had a union, and thus a separate seniority list. This made it difficult for employees, even within the same company, to move from one occupation to another. Orenic covers the labor militancy of the 1960s, which was initiated by the nationwide strike that occurred in 1966. The nearly six-week strike led to a settlement granting a 6 percent raise over three years. (Two percent per year hardly seems as large as it is portrayed in the book, but it is difficult to discern whether it was 6 percent per year or over three years).

This is indeed a very good book.

Lawrence W. Boyd, Jr. is an Associate Specialist with the Center for Labor Education and Research at the University of Hawaii at West Oahu. His current research is focused on the impact of the New Deal on wages, and the impact of wages on the recovery from the Great Depression.

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII