IAM Shop Steward Defends Industrial Unionism
By Matt Doran
We welcome an intelligent and fraternal discussion in the pages of this magazine on questions of trade union strategy and tactics. The two articles referred to below that appeared in the January 2003 edition of Socialist Viewpoint as well as this response constitute an exemplary model of fraternal debate between trade unionists and are in accord with the best traditions of workers democracy. In that spirit we welcome these, as well as future contributions, on craft versus industrial unionism and related strategic and tactical questions before the labor movement.
As a United Airlines aircraft inspector at San Francisco Airport and an IAM shop steward, I read with interest the articles on the situation at United by Barry Sheppard and Jennifer Salazar Biddle. Both conclude that replacing the IAM with AMFA as the bargaining agent for United mechanics will best advance the workers interests, despite both authors disavowal of AMFAs craft unionism.
I agree with both authors criticisms of the IAM. The union structure is undemocratic. The leadership is clearly out of touch with and afraid of the rank and file and even hostile to dissenting voices. I am proud that the majority of the mechanics voted against the union recommended concessions package and was willing to risk their livelihoods to fight corporate powereven without the backing of their own union.
For socialists operating within a bureaucratic and corrupt union, the model for action has been working to build rank-and-file reform movements, such as TDU in the Teamsters or New Directions in the UAW. I know there are enough likeminded activists locally in IAM lodge 1781 in San Francisco to form the core of a reform movement within the IAM. However, building such a movement, especially at this moment with the workforce under attack and the IAM being challenged by AMFA, is a daunting task.
The most common response I receive from my coworkers to the suggestion of a reform movement is, Why go to the trouble of reforming the IAM when I can just sign an AMFA card? My suspicion is that Sheppard and Salazar Biddle are also taking this path of least resistance. It is hard to blame them. The majority of mechanics have given up on the IAM, making a credible reform movement seem an unattainable dream. The mechanics may even be better off in the short term by voting in AMFA, if the change in unions invigorates rank-and-file involvement and militancy. The immediate alternative is the status quo misleadership of the IAM bureaucrats and a rank and file that distrusts and even hates their own union.
An injury to one is an injury to all?
However, there are flaws in these arguments. First, the mechanics and related workers make up less than a third of the IAM-represented employees at UAL. If the best course of action is to decertify the IAM and replace it with AMFA, then what strategy do the authors suggest for our brothers and sisters working the ramp and customer service? AMFA will not accept these workers. Simply stating that they do not support AMFAs craft unionism is a cop-out. If your course of action results in splitting off the most powerful segment of the union and abandoning the most vulnerable workers, what does it mean to say you believe an injury to one is an injury to all?
Secondly, setting aside the craft union issue, AFMA does not differ fundamentally in its outlook from the IAM. AMFA does not represent an ideological break from business unionism. In fact, in its first major airlines negotiations at Alaska Airlines, AMFA was willing to give up the right to strike in favor of binding arbitration. Simply changing institutions does not resolve the lack of a class-based understanding of union struggle.
So where do I stand? I stand with UAL workers of all classifications who are militant and support union democracy. Among mechanics, the drive for AMFA contains these elements. Another aspect, however, is destructive craft union elitism. AMFA supporters routinely argue that mechanics need to get the bag smashers off of our coattails. As socialists, we cannot ignore that the drive for AMFA arose from this reactionary mentality and it has not gone away.
Radical labor historian Art Preis termed the move to industrial unionism as labors giant step. Is the only way forward for United mechanics to reverse this step? If it is, then we must admit that within AMFA we will have to push for industrial unionism along with militancy and democracy. Ironically, this will require and a reform movement to replace the AMFA leadership!
The situation at United Airlines is not as black and white as Sheppard and Salazar Biddle portray it. Ramp, stores and customer service workers are under attack as well. We cannot honestly say an injury to one is an injury to all while in the same breath advocating a strategy that leaves these workers out. If AMFA is the best we can do under the circumstances, let us maintain our objectivity and be honest about the serious drawbacks. Neither union is beyond reproach. Socialist trade unionism should be dictated by an understanding of class struggle, not the logo on the union card.