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A view of an American Airlines ticket counter at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport on March 13, 2020 in Dallas. (Photo: Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

As Airline Giants Beg for Taxpayer Bailout, Progressives Demand Stock Buyback Ban and Strong Worker Protections

"We're not doing no-strings-attached bailouts that enrich shareholders or pay CEO bonuses. Period."

Jake Johnson

Progressive members of Congress and workers are demanding that any taxpayer bailout money for airline companies come with strict conditions—including stronger labor protections and a ban on stock buybacks—as industry giants clamor for tens of billions of dollars in government funds to help them weather the financial turmoil of the coronavirus outbreak.

"Any rescue of the airlines must put workers first."
—Sen. Bernie Sanders

"Let me be clear: We're not doing no-strings-attached bailouts that enrich shareholders or pay CEO bonuses. Period," tweeted Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who on Tuesday released a list of conditions that she described as a "progressive litmus test for bailouts to large corporations" in any industry.

Warren's eight proposed conditions are as follows:

  1. Companies must maintain their payrolls and use funds to keep people working or on payroll.
  2. Companies must provide a $15 minimum wage as quickly as practicable but no later than one year of the national emergency declaration ending.
  3. Companies are permanently prohibited from engaging in share repurchases.
  4. Companies are prohibited from paying out dividends or executive bonuses while they are receiving any relief and for three years thereafter.
  5. Companies must set aside at least one seat—but potentially two or more, as the amount of relief increases—on the board of directors for representatives elected by workers.
  6. Collective bargaining agreements should remain in place and should not be reopened or renegotiated pursuant to this relief program.
  7. Corporations must obtain shareholder and board approval for all political expenditures.
  8. CEOs must be required to personally certify a company is compliance and face criminal penalties for violating these certifications.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) echoed many of Warren's demands in a tweet late Tuesday.

"Let's be clear—any rescue of the airlines must put workers first," said Sanders. "We cannot repeat the failures of the last bailout."

Aerospace behemoth Boeing released a statement Tuesday expressing support for "a minimum of $60 billion in access to public and private liquidity" to help the airline industry weather the financial fallout caused by the coronavirus pandemic, which has resulted in mass flight cancellations and a sharp decline in bookings as people avoid unnecessary travel.

Airlines for America, a lobbying group that represents major U.S. airline companies like American Airlines and Southwest, also called for tens of billions in direct federal relief for the airline industry in a memo (pdf) published Monday.

The Washington Post reported Wednesday that the Trump administration and Republican members of Congress are considering proposing "$50 billion to help rescue the airline industry and $150 billion to prop up other sectors, which could include hotels, among others."

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) noted in a tweet Tuesday afternoon that "96% of airline profits over the last decade went to buying up their own stocks to juice the price—not raising wages or other investments."

"If there is so much as a DIME of corporate bailout money in the next relief package," said Ocasio-Cortez, "it should include a reinstated ban on stock buybacks."

In a statement on Tuesday, Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ called on Congress to guarantee that relief for contracted airport workers is included in any taxpayer bailout for the airline industry.

"The coronavirus is having a huge impact on our lives and the economy and airport workers who are on the frontlines of this crisis," said Kyle Bragg, president of SEIU 32BJ. "It's not just corporations that need support, it's the American people."

Ben McMillan, a wheelchair attendant at the Philadelphia International Airport, said Congress must "ensure the airlines don't receive a bailout unless hardworking contracted airport workers are protected."

"When the layoffs happen, I know it will send airport workers in a tailspin," said McMillan. "How will we continue to provide for our loved ones? I spend hours at the airport pushing grandparents and disabled passengers, but who's going to take care of me in my time of need?"

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