Monday, May 16, 2005

When your pension just flies away, then what?

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. - The retirement system for pilots has always been generous, at least in the last 20 or so years, because pilots by U.S. law have to retire at 60 - at least from flying commercial airliners. So the pilots union negotiated an arguably good deal with each contract.

And because of the immense responsibility - keeping more than a hundred people alive while hurtling across the sky at 500 mph in a bucket of bolts and metal - pilots are well rewarded with salary (and the promise of a healthy retirement income).

But that concept all went to hell at United Airlines because the company was mismanaged (Ever fly United Airlines? Jaysus...) and ever since the pensions have been the target of the bankruptcy court and the people still running the shambles that is left.

The public attitude is pretty typical, and ugly. It seems to center on that people don't have the kind of potential retirement benefits that a United Airlines pilot had, until last week. So the reaction is, "If I can't have it, neither can you."

It's a lose-lose proposition that unfortunately is being replicated all across the country. Wal-Mart exploits it employees and undercuts the union grocery store down the street and instead of saying 'Hey Wal-Mart, pay your people enough so they can get off welfare,' the reaction is 'Get rid of the union.'

Our nation is in a race to the bottom. All of those overpriced houses eventually won't have anyone to buy them if the nation keeps losing good-paying jobs.

But my concern is more basic about how we view each other. Instead of carping about how good some people have it, why don't we try to make things better for everyone? When Henry Ford starting making (and selling) the Model T, he paid his factory workers almost extravagantly by the standards of early 20th century America. Ford was really a cheap bastard, so it puzzled most people until he explained that he wanted the men in the factory to be able to afford the cars he was producing.

So it should be with every business endeavor, instead of trying to cut their employees' throats like robber barons.

The expression is something like, 'a rising tide lifts all boats.' I don't think the president of the U.S. likes that idea. He prefers to own a private pond and garden with lots of people on the other side of the fence. (Yes, that is a pretty obvious reference to Mexico.)

We can't do much about him, though his time is already passing and I suppose we have Dick Cheney to look forward to some time in three years. (Oh my God!)

But we can try to get the tide rising by changing people's attitudes - or at least our own.

United's pension troubles are only the first of many such fiscal crashes in the airline industry, and if the Bush Administration has its way, nobody (except for a Brahmin class of Republicans) will ever get to retire from any business, anywhere. Pensions can cut into stockholder profits. Watch military pensions, too. They're next.

But what good are those profits if the company folds up?

By the way, if you are sitting on a bunch of frequent flier miles with United Airlines - take a trip.


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