Write us!

September 2003 • Vol 3, No. 8 •

The AMFA Victory and the Crisis of Union Leadership

By Nat Weinstein

A small craft union, the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA), with an active membership of 11,000 at seven airlines has ousted the more than 100,000-member International Association of Machinists (IAM) as the legally recognized bargaining agent for 9,000 active United Airlines aircraft mechanics and related workers—more than doubling AMFA’s total membership.

AMFA’s two-to-one victory over the IAM is generally attributed to the new union’s more militant stance, its far more democratic internal regime and its sharp criticism of the IAM officialdom’s policy of “concession” or “giveback” bargaining with United and other airlines.

O.V. Delle-Femine, the national director of AMFA, had based his union’s appeal to airline mechanics by saying his union would only represent mechanics and that it would not allow management to impose further concessions on workers. This is how AMFA describes its basic strategic outlook on its website:

The AMFA drive, which appears to be rapidly evolving into an industry-wide movement, is in reality the continuation of a struggle between the craft unionism concept of workers’ organizations versus the theory of industrial unionism. AMFA supporters are generally adherents to the craft ideology, which holds that labor unions derive the bulk of their strength from members’ skill, not simply the sheer number of workers, and should be organized accordingly.

Conversely, IAM patrons tend to be advocates of industrial unionism, which espouses the belief that the sheer numbers of members is the determining factor in the strength of workers’ organizations, and all workers within a given industry should belong to “one big union.”1

While Delle-Femine’s pledge of no concessions is laudable, delivering on his union’s promise to make no concessions will take a whole lot more than good intentions or the advantages he claims is provided by AMFA’s craft structure.

Few students of labor history, however, will take seriously the argument that industrial unionism is the cause of labor’s decline; or that basing union power on workers’ skills is the way to stop and reverse the decline of the American labor movement. Besides, the leaders of building trades and rail unions, all of which are craft unions, have followed essentially the same policies as their counterparts in the industrial unions and their memberships have also suffered a decades-long decline in real wages, benefits and working conditions.

Thus, in the eyes of the IAM and the AFL-CIO the main threat represented by AMFA is its stated opposition to unions granting concessions to employers.

Moreover, if AMFA is to survive and grow it will have little choice but to continue to operate according to the organizational principle of industrial unionism.

(By the way, most craft unions in the factory-based mass production industries have either been replaced by industrial unions or have transformed themselves into industrial unions.)

In any case, the problems besetting workers and their unions today have nothing to do with the forms of union organization since the great majority of workers in the factory-based mass production industries have long been both semiskilled and unskilled workers.

Lessons of the defeated airline controllers strike

We get a clearer picture of the cause of labor’s decline and the consequent decline in the living standards of the American working class by reviewing the role of the labor bureaucracy in the 17-month-long strike by the 13,000 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) in 1981-82. That strike, was crushed and PATCO destroyed because of the betrayal of the principle of working-class and trade union solidarity by the AFL-CIO top officialdom.

While the decline of the unions and workers living standards really began when the labor bureaucracy refused to mobilize the American labor movement in a struggle against the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, the full force of this union-busting legislation was unleashed by the crushing of the PATCO strike—in both cases, with the indispensable aid and assistance provided by the leaders of the AFL-CIO.

• • •

When President Ronald Reagan launched his attack on PATCO in 1981, the previous administration of President Jimmy Carter had already laid the foundations for Reagan’s strikebreaking and union busting. Carter had ordered the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to conduct a quiet campaign of harassment against union controllers. Twelve months before the government’s contract with PATCO was set to expire, Carter formed a “Management Strike Contingency Force” to prepare for a walkout by the highly skilled airline controllers who were grossly underpaid.

In other words, strikebreaking plans were laid with Carter’s blessing, including arranging for the use of U.S. Air Force traffic controllers as scabs.

Reagan was happy to finish what Carter had started. In February 1981, a month before contract negotiations had begun, the FAA and the Justice Department were ordered to prepare a list of PATCO militants to arrest. Just four hours into the strike that began in August of 1981, Reagan called a press conference to announce on national TV that strikers would be terminated if they didn’t return to work in 48 hours.2

AFL-CIO and IAM leaders had a chance to show what union solidarity was all about. Instead, while AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland hypocritically denounced Reagan’s attack on PATCO, at the very same time, he sent a letter to AFL-CIO affiliates warning them against honoring the picket lines of the striking union!

Kirkland wrote, “I personally do not think that the trade union movement should undertake anything that would represent punishing, injuring or inconveniencing the public at large for the sins or the transgressions of the Reagan administration.” In other words while stabbing striking airline controllers in the back, Kirkland took care to cover up for Carter and other Democrats who had prepared, supported and collaborated with Reagan’s strikebreaking campaign.

William Winpisinger, then-president of the IAM and a self-described “socialist,” also refused to mobilize IAM members in support of striking airline controllers by citing the no-strike clause IAM leaders had previously inserted in the union’s contract with the airlines.

Kirkland and Winpisinger failed to do what even many conservative trade union officials had tended to do before the fateful year of 1947—honor the picket lines of striking sister unions. In fact, the unions involved in the first three big strikes in 1934—teamsters in Minneapolis, autoworkers in Toledo and longshoremen in San Francisco—had received the active support of conservative central labor councils of those cities.

To be sure, such bold action can lead to victory only when workers and their leaders understand that it’s absolutely necessary for them to work extra hard to mobilize the full force of the working class behind their strike. The more successful they are in that endeavor, the greater their chance for victory.

Finally, on this point, if unions expect to get a response from other unions and other workers, they are most likely to get help when their union needs it, if they have earned the reputation of helping other unions and other victims of capitalist injustice when they needed it. Working class solidarity is a two-way street, and the more you give, the more you get back.

Had leaders of the AFL-CIO and the IAM done their duty, the odds in favor of airline controllers’ would have been vastly improved. But instead, the leaders of the then-20-million-strong AFL-CIO and the one-million-strong IAM, ordered their members to cross PATCO picket lines. That not only guaranteed the defeat of that strike, but it also opened the door to the series of broken strikes and crushed unions that followed on the heels of PATCO’s defeat.

Among the most important of the strike defeats were a 15-month strike by meatpackers’ against Hormel in 1965-66, followed by more very long strikes against three companies between 1992 and 1995—autoworkers against Caterpillar, food workers against Staley, and rubber workers against Bridgestone/Firestone—all in Decatur Illinois.

Starting with the smashing of the airline controllers’ strike, these disastrous strike defeats contributed significantly to the subsequent epidemic of giveback contracts negotiated by pro-employer union officials following the AFL-CIO policy of subordinating workers’ interests to corporate profits.

And with the economy continuing to contract and capitalist competition intensifying, one-way giveback bargaining with nothing granted in return, will continue to spread throughout the economy. At least until workers begin to say, “we have taken all we can take, and we ain’t gonna take it no more!”

That’s when more or less spontaneous eruptions of rank and file revolts will begin. And that’s when the scattered groupings of union activists who have been reading labor history in search of a way out of the hole dug for American workers by its misleaders, will have an opportunity to put into practice what they have learned about why some strikes are lost and others won.

Well, in the meantime, let’s take a look at one of the most recent demonstrations of a well-led national strike struggle. One that ended victoriously even though it took place in today’s very hostile environment created by a half-century of bureaucratic misleadership—proving that, with a little bit of real leadership, strikes can still be won.

Teamsters prove strikes can still be won

Two national Teamster strikes against the United Parcel Service (UPS) that took place in September 1994 and August 1997. But it all began with the election in December 1991 of Ron Carey to president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

Then on February 7, 1994, for the first time since the United Mine Workers defied a Taft-Hartley anti-strike injunction in 1978, a major international union defied another anti-strike injunction and ordered a nationwide strike against an attempt by UPS bosses to violate its contract with the Teamsters Union. UPS bosses capitulated after the first day of the strike and signed an agreement with the union effectively voiding their assault on the health and safety of UPS employees and giving the company a bloody nose to the bargain.

UPS bosses had ordered truck drivers to single handedly pick up and deliver packages up to 150 pounds. The UPS contract had limited loads carried by individual teamsters to no more than 70 pounds.

The giant package carrier had announced its intention to raise the load-limit in early January that year, less than three months after the close of national contract negotiations with the union. The company hadn’t raised this issue at any time during the seven months of negotiations ending in October 1993. After their unilateral announcement in January, the UPS bosses refused to respond to the union’s demand that this issue be discussed and any proposed changes be negotiated.

The significance of the success of this bold action by Teamster President Ron Carey, which forced UPS bosses to beat a hasty retreat, cannot be exaggerated. In the first place, along with showing UPS its mettle, the Teamsters sent a clear message to workers, bosses and bureaucrats across the land that the strike is still as potent a weapon as it was in the 1930s and ’40s when American workers locked horns with, and defeated the world’s largest and most powerful industrial corporations. It gave the lie to the widespread myth promoted by bosses and bureaucrats alike that “strikes don’t work anymore.”

Then again, on August 4, 1997, some 185,000 members of the Teamsters went on strike against UPS. This time, tens of thousands of Teamsters began picketing 1700 UPS distribution centers in 50 states—with many more if needed to stop a strikebreaking effort by the bosses.

The strike was rooted in the corporation’s successful drive that had begun in the 1960s when the pro-employer Teamster bureaucracy gave the green light to UPS’s campaign to convert their full-time workforce into one largely working part-time, with two-tier wages and few if any benefits.

Starting in the mid-1960s, part-timers had become the major source of the company’s super-profits. Full-timers wages had risen to $20 an hour, while part-timers’ wages had been virtually frozen at $8-$10 an hour for 15 years.

Although the subsequent Teamster victory did not eliminate the two-tier wage scale or win the right to a full-time job for all workers, it reduced the wage gap somewhat for the first time in the 15 years of frozen part-time wages. It narrowed the gap somewhat between full- and part-time Teamsters and won a few thousand full-time jobs for a small portion of the company’s part-timers.

History proves, however, that every major strike victory—which was also the case in 1997—changes the relation of forces between workers and bosses resulting in a vast increase in working-class confidence in the power of their unions. Consequently, after such victories, unions enter subsequent contract negotiations with employers stronger than they were before. And the new relation of class forces tends to pay off with even bigger concessions won after the first big test of strength had convinced the beaten employer that resistance would likely be more costly than giving in without a fight.

In the 1930s, for instance, the first of those hard-fought strike victories ended with little more than a union contract firmly establishing wages and working conditions, with only token wage increases amounting to as little as one cent an hour (wages at the time, were as little as 30 or 40 cents an hour). However, it led to subsequent contracts that substantially increased real wages as well as increased control by workers of conditions on the job and the reinforcement of the workers’ right to strike to enforce union contracts when employers violate them.

Moreover, by showing that the right to mobilize mass picket lines capable of shutting recalcitrant companies down tight can make it far more difficult for employers to organize a back to work movement by advertising for “replacement workers,” that is, strikebreakers. That’s how the Teamster leadership in the 1997 UPS national strike let the bosses, and its courts, cops and government, know that it would not willingly abide by injunctions designed to strip workers of the ability to defend their living standards and their unions.

UPS workers on strike in Oakland.

Clinton’s bipartisan government beheads Teamsters

President Bill Clinton, with the complicity of the Congress and the capitalist media monopoly, ganged up on the militant leader of the Teamsters and in a gross violation of union democracy Carey was ousted from his post in 1997, and subsequently expelled from membership for life.

A government-appointed “oversight” board ostensibly created to drive Teamster bureaucrats linked with the “mob” out of the Teamsters Union, was composed entirely of corporate lawyers serving as prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner. Moreover, the ruling class did a lot more than set up a kangaroo court to give Carey a “fair trial and then hang him.”

They also used the capitalist media monopoly to try Carey by newspaper headline in the “court of public opinion.” The main objective of the anti-labor media assault on the Teamster president was to convince the public that Carey was not what he was—a militant workers’ leader who put his members’ interests before profits—but just another “labor boss” who treated the union treasury as his personal piggy bank.

Thus, a one-sided case was mounted in the mass media giving 98 percent of its coverage to the prosecution’s unsubstantiated charges against Carey, while the remaining 2 percent of its coverage was allotted to Carey’s defense. Furthermore, damning evidence was treated as the gospel truth, while facts presented in Carey’s defense were selected for publication with utmost care taken to cloud the truth.

For instance, the fact that the oversight board had admitted that there was no evidence supporting the charges against Carey was made public only after months of damning “evidence” had been circulated far and wide in the media and the expulsion verdict against Carey—who had been removed from office from the first—had already been carried out.

Moreover, when Carey finally received his day in a proper court of law before a jury of his peers, he was acquitted of all charges levied against him. But the identical charges—judged, juried, and executed against the expelled Teamster president by the so-called “oversight” board appointed by the capitalist government—was silently left in effect by the minions of capitalist “justice.”

Moreover, the vast majority of those who had been inundated with the “facts” presented by the capitalist media monopoly have not been informed by the nations “free press” of Carey’s vindication by a regular court of law. Thus justice is nevertheless left undone and insult has been added to injury.

In this case too, the top leaders of the-AFL-CIO refused to lift a finger to stop this assault on Carey and the right of the Teamster membership to elect leaders of their choice. They also allowed a precedent to be set that would make this violation of union democracy and organizational independence applicable to all unions. Thus it now stands in the law books as a legal precedent that can be used against all union leaders who dare to do their duty by their dues-paying members.

Nevertheless, the example set by Ron Carey in his six years in the leadership of the Teamsters Union confirms the viability of the class-struggle strategy employed by the leaders of the great strike victories of the 1930s and ’40s. And it points to the road immediately ahead for the next generation of class-struggle fighters that are now gestating inside the ranks of the union movement today.

1AMFA’s website can be accessed at www.amfanatl.org

2 The Socialist Worker, August 3, 2001.





Write us