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Summer 2002 • Vol 2, No. 7 •

Teamster Flight Attendants: Should Workers Join Another Union?

By Charles Walker

“When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another ….”

—Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776

Look high and low, and you’ll not find a union official who opposes the freedom of all workers to join a union. Indeed, the decline of the U.S. labor movement is often partly blamed by union leaders on legal restrictions, which politicians have enacted, that often make organizing extremely difficult, and financially burdensome. AFL-CIO president John J. Sweeney, addressing the Labor and Working Class History Association in April, said, “Some 30 to 40 million non-union American workers who would like to form unions at their workplaces have been prevented from doing so—helping push down union density in the private sector to levels not seen since the 1920’s.”

But what do union officials have to say about workers’ freedom to leave their current union and join or organize another? Check out the constitutions and by-laws of union federations, international unions, local unions and all the umbrella structures in between and you’re not likely to find that they safeguard the freedom of their members to join or organize another union. On the other hand, the constitutions and by-laws directly or indirectly condemn “dual-unionism;” and should the “dual-unionists” prevail and leave the union, the documents precisely forbid that the former members take anything with them that their dues might have paid for.

Workers’ freedom to choose another union is being tested these days in the Teamsters Union, where a fledgling organization, the Professional Flight Attendants Association (PFAA), is attempting to become the recognized bargaining representative for over 11,000 Northwest flight attendants. On its face it would seem that the PFAA confronts at least as Herculean a task as does the Teamsters Union in its failing attempt to organize 8000 truckers at Overnite, Inc.

Reportedly, the PFAA has an office and some interim officers and not much more. The Teamsters, on the other hand, claim 1.4 million members, have several thousand elected and appointed officers and recently boosted its income by millions a month when it raised the members’ dues by 25 percent. Despite the seemingly lopsided relationship of forces, the Teamsters top officialdom has moved quickly and powerfully to keep the flight attendants under the Teamsters banner.

That’s not unusual, but the Teamsters Union’s choice of actions clearly demonstrates that the Teamsters leadership has no regard for the freedom of its members to choose another union. Perhaps that too is not surprising, but it may well enrage all flight attendants serious about wanting a democratic union. Those attendants are not likely to cheer when they learn that the Teamsters union has begun a witch-hunt for dissident flight attendants and, according to the Detroit News (July 2), says that it will file charges against any member that “doesn’t oppose the membership raid” on Flight Attendants Local Union 2000, beginning with five members who have identified themselves as the interim PFAA executive board.

Open season on dissent

It’s not clear how the Teamsters will identify the “offenders,” nor how the Teamsters will deal with those flight attendants who keep their allegiance to themselves, or those who declare themselves neutral. But an open-season attack on dissent that threatens all flight attendants’ right to think for themselves, only confirms long-held convictions that the international union, run from its Marble Palace headquarters in Washington, D.C., is out-of-step with a lot of flight attendants, despite their 26-years association.

Following a Sunday, June 30 near-midnight takeover of the local union’s offices in Michigan and Minneapolis by Teamster officials, Teamsters president James P. Hoffa ousted the union’s elected executive board and appointed a trustee to run the local. While the midnight raid might have been planned merely as a less troublesome way to do a messy job, its underlying political indifference to the sensibilities of the flight attendants’ ranks speaks volumes about the relations between the Teamsters Union and the flight attendants.

In 1991, the Northwest flight attendants, then scattered in six local unions, said they were fed up with the Teamsters’ old-guard regime and talked of bolting. Seventy percent of the flight attendants signed cards for the Association of Flight Attendants, an AFL-CIO affiliate. In 1992, newly elected Teamsters president, Ron Carey, met with the flight attendants and promised them that the Teamsters Union would listen to them and take their issues seriously and they then voted by a 2-1 margin to stay in the Teamsters. Then, as good as his word, on Feb. 6, Carey facilitated the formation of a single union local for the flight attendants.

Not until Carey’s ouster from the union by a board of government agents and the election of James P. Hoffa in 1999 did the flight attendants again have problems with the international union’s leadership. Hoffa intervened in the flight attendants’ ratification vote of a proposed contract that Hoffa recommended, taking control of the contract balloting away from the local union. The flight attendants, who six days earlier had voted a 99.41 percent strike authorization with a 93 percent voter turnout (8,686 to 49), rejected Hoffa’s recommended contract with a 69 percent “no” vote and a 94 percent turnout. Subsequently, Hoffa disbanded a rank-and-file based contract campaign effort.

The ranks lost control of bargaining

It wasn’t until Hoffa presented an improved offer nine months later that the flight attendants voted 5,485 to 2,584 (only 57 percent voted) to ratify a new contract that contained $120 million more than the first offer. The new contract weakened work rules, but some members said that the Hoffa leadership wouldn’t do any better for them, and the ranks had lost control of the bargaining process.

From that time to the present, relations between the Hoffa administration and many of the flight attendants have been more adversarial then anything else. Hoffa assigned a personal representative to the local to oversee its activities. However, Hoffa does have support. “Eleven of 17 elected airport representatives [actually “Base Representatives,” similar to business agents] sent a letter to Hoffa last week, urging him to intervene and protect the membership.” Undoubtedly, the airport reps’ views reflect the views of some flight attendants; and there are others that oppose leaving the Teamsters, but who also oppose Hoffa’s policies, including his placing the local union in trusteeship. “At stake,” AP reported (July 2), “is about $500,000 in monthly dues collected from the union members.”

The Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), a democratic caucus that for years has had close relationships with a number of officials in the local union, opposes the setting up of an independent union. A week before the takeover, the local union posted on its web site a statement setting forth TDU’s position, which urged “flight attendants to remain in Local 2000 and to continue to work together to build a strong and democratic union.” “Many independent associations,” TDU said, “in fact, end up joining national unions. Others tend to become too closely tied to one employer they deal with. The bottom line: Sooner or later, lengthy and financially draining crises inevitably confront every labor organization, and a union that lacks the financial backing of a large international parent is incapable of the sustained cash flow needed to fight such battles successfully.” The Hoffa trustee has kept the statement on the local’s web site.

Before Hoffa’s trustee replaced him, the local union’s principal officer repeatedly cautioned the Hoffa administration that it needed to be sensitive to the flight attendants’ concerns. “They don’t like the browbeating, the bully tactics. And when it comes from the international, they get really upset about it.” (AP, July 2)

Federal labor law curbs union members’ freedom to change unions, restricting the windows for changing unions to 60-90 days prior to the expiration of a current contract, or after a contract has expired and a new one has not been ratified. The justification for such restrictions is “labor stability.”

The Northwest flight attendants’ contract doesn’t end until 2004, so Hoffa’s trusteeship and the internal political turmoil are not about to end quickly. Nor is it clear how the dispute will end. The Teamsters fledging rival may, as TDU says, have serious weaknesses, but it also has a democratic program that seems extremely attractive in light of Hoffa’s heavy-handed machinations. The projected reforms would allow the ranks to recall their elected officers, and would provide for the election of bargaining committees. Clearly, those are protections that would keep most union members from wanting to join or organize a new union.





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