Why I Support AMFA
By Jennifer Salazar Biddle
For years I have been a critic of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA). I have thought it an elitist organization, a throwback to unionism a hundred years past. The concept of industrial unionismrepresented in my mind by the IAM and other AFL-CIO affiliated unionswas the unionism I believed in. That old Wobbly phrase An Injury to One Is an Injury to All encapsulated my ideals. Solidarity between workers regardless of skill, race, sex or any of the other things that arbitrarily separate usthats what I believed in.
I still do, more now than ever.
What I understand more clearly through experiences of the past year however is that AMFA is not just a craft union. AMFA also is a union that harkens back to the days when workers organized and fought for the rights of all workerseven workers today.
Most people make the most important decisions in their day-to-day lives not by reading books and theorizing about how things ought to be, but by doing and acting. Through our actions we discover things about ourselves and others and the world around us.
I did two important things this week. I went to an AMFA meeting and I went to an International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) rally.
Though I already signed a card calling for a representational election at UAL a month or so ago, I did this more in the spirit of democracy. I still considered myself a skeptic of AMFA. While over the past year I developed a favorable impression of some of the organizers involved in the San Francisco AMFA campaign, I remained unconvinced that AMFA was the answer. I thought what we needed to do was reform the IAM, make it more democratic and accountable to the membership.
The first thing I did at the AMFA meeting was pass out flyers for the August 12th ILWU rally. The organizers at the meeting not only welcomed this and were interested in the ILWUs struggle, they also offered to include the flyers on their literature table.
The West Coast longshoremen might be striking soon. They are fighting against major health care cuts and outsourcing of work through automation. The Bush administration has invoked the Taft-Hartley Act to prevent a strike and is discussing the possibility of passing legislation that would force them to bargain under the Railway Labor Act. Bush is using the War on Terrorism as the reasoning behind this attack on the longshoremen. Obviously we face a similar struggle in the aviation industry. An injury to one is an injury to all.
Craft unionism and solidarity
I had two very specific questions to ask at the AMFA meeting: 1) What is AMFAs strategy to counter the airline employers strategy of outsourcing our work and turning aircraft maintenance into a largely non-union operation?
2) How does a craft union build solidarity between different groups of workers?
O.V. Delle Femine, AMFAs National Director, said what we need to do is win good contracts. He talked about Northwests contract and how AMFA improved it. He added that AMFA had language in all of its contracts that stipulate AMFA members will honor picket lines of all workers. He stressed that AMFA would honor IAM picket lines too. In the discussion that followed I learned that AMFA had real mechanisms to keep itself honest: open negotiations so the membership could be involved in shaping contracts and the right to instant recall of any union representative. AMFA also believes it is more effective to protest than to lobby Congress. Mr. Delle Femine mentioned the White House picket AMFA organized that made the national news during Northwest negotiations.
Any student of labor history knows that workers protesting, picketing and striking is the way they have won the most gains for themselves. Everything from the eight-hour day to unemployment insurance to safety and health standards are a result of the direct action of workers. Workers did not win these improvements by lobbying Congress. They organized themselves into unions that fought in the streets and on the picket lines.
My impression of AMFA from the informational meeting was very positive. Not only did AMFA talk about organizing and winning gains for workers, they were willing to support a rally for others facing a similar struggle. It proved to me AMFA stood for solidarity in action.
One of the organizers for the ILWU rally in Oakland personally asked me to organize a group of IAM members to participate. He asked specifically if I would bring our locals banner. Though it personally repulsed me to envision myself standing behind the IAM logo at this time I was willing to do so as an act of solidarity. I distributed flyers to the local committeemen and officers. I personally called the local to offer to bring the banner myself.
Dave Lovendahl, Chair of the Outsource Alternatives Committee (who seems to have a permanent job at the local despite not holding an elected position), said to me The IAM will not participate in the rally or in any events in the future with the ILWU.
When I asked why, he said tersely that he didnt know the reason but that the IAM wouldnt. Then he said, Why dont you ask your friends in the ILWU.
So this is why people call the IAM a cult.
The rally was fantastic. There were 500 people at the Federal Building in Oakland. The bright yellow ILWU banner read An Injury to One Is an Injury to All and hung high above the crowd. From the flatbed of a Teamsters truck, one speaker after another from various unions and community groups recounted the long, militant history of the ILWU. The ILWU is the union that led the San Francisco General Strike in 1934. It is the union that refused to unload Nazi ships before the U.S. joined the war. It is the union that opposed the internment of Japanese Americans when it was considered anti-patriotic to do so. It is the union that refused to work on South African ships during the Apartheid regime. The rally itself was made up of largely African-American ILWU members and their families. The ILWU is a union that has lived by the words An Injury to One Is an Injury to All.
I would have liked to have heard the back room discussion at our local amongst our mostly white, male union reps as to why the IAM would not participate in this rally.
When I did ask someone at the rally why the IAM would not participate, they said they thought there was a jurisdictional dispute on the docks between the IAM and the ILWU. In other words, turf.
Building a better, stronger labor movement is not about turf. Its about solidarity. Its about voting with your feet. Its about fighting for what is fair and just. And sometimes its about taking a stand even when it is unpopular. We need unions that fight and are democraticnot in words but in action.
As the War on Terrorism reveals an agenda that restricts the rights of workers to organize and makes it harder for us to hold onto decent wages and working conditions, solidarity with others becomes more important than ever.
Ill take an underdog of a union like AMFA over a big industrial union like the IAM for the simple reason that it understands thisnot in words but in action.