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Norwegian Air deal undermines labor standards

Cue the stately intro music: Norwegian Air International (NAI) CEO Bjørn Kjos is taking tips on how the U.S. government functions from Netflix’s D.C. drama, House of Cards. 

In a series of articles this fall in Dagens Næringsliv, Norway’s business newspaper, Kjos suggested that American opposition to NAI’s request for a foreign air carrier permit is all a symptom of what he clearly sees as a corrupt House of Cards-style American political system where “if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.”  

{mosads}Apparently Kjos believes opposition to his company’s proposal is all the result of backdoor deals like the ones that take place in the fictional series about a South Carolina congressman. But in this case, truth is actually stranger than fiction since the NAI case could itself be a miniseries devoted to how to blatantly circumvent international aviation trade deals like the U.S.-EU Open Skies agreement, upend labor laws, and evade collective bargaining obligations. In fact, this miniseries would no doubt play as a classic dark comedy, since the setup itself reads like an elaborate joke: NAI plans to headquarter its operations in Ireland rather than Norway – despite having no plans to fly in or out of that country – and to hire Bangkok-based workers through a Singaporean hiring agency, all in order to circumvent Norwegian labor laws. NAI claims that the article of the U.S.-EU agreement that stipulates that the “opportunities created by the Agreement are not intended to undermine labour standards” simply doesn’t apply here. Cue up the laugh track. 

Exactly why Kjos is unwilling to believe U.S. politicians oppose his business plan on the grounds that it deeply undermines labor standards and thus violates the U.S-EU agreement is unclear. NAI’s plan would not only blatantly chase profits by gaming trade rules designed to prohibit NAI-like operating schemes that lower labor standards; it would also drive the entire transatlantic aviation market toward the same “flag of convenience” model that decimated the U.S. maritime industry and slashed tens of thousands of middle class mariners’ jobs. 

So although Kjos may want to believe there’s something more underhanded going on, opposition to his business plan has clearly been in the name of responsibility and foresight. In its ruling to deny NAI’s request for an exemption that would have allowed it to begin service before being granted a foreign air carrier permit, the Department of Transportation explained that granting the request would not be “appropriate or in the public interest.” And prior to that, the entire House of Representatives – Republicans and Democrats – approved an amendment declaring that expansion of our airline trade relationships must not come at the expense of our laws and U.S. airline jobs. 

Over the past year, members of Congress from both sides of the aisle and DOT officials have sent a clear message: that they understand how crucial it is to reward high-road business practices and reject harmful proposals like NAI’s that would do little more than kill jobs both here and abroad and disadvantage U.S. and European air carriers that play by the rules. 

Today Kjos is in D.C. making a last-ditch effort to convince the DOT to rule in his favor so that he can mold the transatlantic aviation marketplace into one that works best for his carefully-cooked operating plan. The date of his speech hardly seems randomly selected: it coincides perfectly with a November 25 D.C. meeting of the U.S.-EU Joint Committee to discuss the NAI application. 

Speeches, PR stunts, and odd references to television shows do not negate what I know, Congress knows, and the DOT knows: we need a transatlantic marketplace that works for everyone, not just for CEOs who believe that trade rules apply to everyone but their own companies. Our laws and trade agreements are not, in fact, just a house of cards.

Wytkind is president of the Transportation Trades Department (TTD), an affiliate of the AFL-CIO.



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