Unions push administration to reject Norwegian airline

Labor unions are calling on the Obama administration to reject a Norwegian airline’s request for access to U.S. airports.

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In a letter obtained by The Hill and sent Tuesday to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, more than 20 unions urged the administration to reject Norwegian Air International’s (NAI) application to the Transportation Department for a foreign air carrier permit.

“NAI is promoting a business model that has become all too familiar to the U.S. labor movement: undercut the competition by scouring the globe for cheap labor, diminished collective bargaining rights and weak regulations,” said the letter.

The missive is on letterhead from the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO, which has campaigned against the Scandinavian company’s move. But union presidents and officials from several labor groups not known for their aviation work signed onto the letter, including those from the American Federation of Teachers, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Unions said they fear if the airline’s application is approved, other foreign airlines will follow their lead.

“As representatives of unions that represent workers in several sectors of our economy we have seen first-hand the effects of un-checked globalization of the American workforce. Too often, poorly conceived and badly enforced free trade agreements have led to the offshoring of U.S. jobs,” said the letter. “We stand unified with U.S. and European airline unions in steadfastly opposing the NAI application.”

NAI is a subsidiary of the budget carrier Norwegian Air.

At issue is Norwegian Air’s attempt to gain access to airports, including American ones, using the U.S. and European Union’s “Open Skies” agreement.

Last month, NAI won approval from Ireland, a EU member, to register its planes there. If its foreign carrier application is approved by the Transportation Department, NAI could fly then trans-Atlantic flights into the United States.

In addition, Norwegian Air has promised to sell tickets at low rates for those flights. But many in labor say those low fares come at the cost of safety of little pay for workers.

Union officials have said the company wants to register its planes in Ireland to avoid Norway’s tough labor and tax laws. Further, they contend that the airline will foreign-based flight crews to undercut U.S. competitors.

The airline has pushed back against union complaints, releasing a letter signed by 60 Norwegian Air employees who once worked at U.S.-based airlines. The employees said labor’s criticism of the company has been overblown. 



“Most of us have experience working for other major airlines,” the employees wrote. “We have found Norwegian’s training program, compensation and benefits package to be of the highest quality and market competitive.”

Norwegian Air said unions are opposing their expansion because of their cheap prices, and pointed to the experience of Southwest.

“I’m sure Herb Kelleher went through the same thing at Southwest, and all the people that adored their careers at Southwest went through the same thing when Southwest was no longer just flying in Texas,” Norwegian Air flight attendant Bill Hennessey told The Hill.