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September 2003 • Vol 3, No. 8 •

Mechanics’ Victory at United Airlines

By Malik Miah

In a stunning victory July 14 for mechanics’ and related employees at United Airlines, the Aircraft Mechanics’ Fraternal Association (AMFA) replaced the International Association of Machinists (IAM) as their union. The victory came after a rank and file grassroots campaign that included hand billing, tabling and responding to the failed policies of the incumbent union. United Airlines is the world’s second largest carrier.

AMFA now represents more mechanics in the airline industry than any other union. Represented airlines include Northwest Airlines, Alaska Airlines and in January AMFA won certification at Southwest Airlines. With mechanics at United Airlines, AMFA represents over 20,000 active mechanics’ and related workers and is in the middle of volunteer organizing campaigns at American (the world’s largest carrier), Delta, US Airways and American West.

The vote at United was not close. Of the 8,226 members who voted, out of the 13,144 who were eligible, 5,234 (63.5 percent) voted for AMFA and only 2,992 (34 percent) for the IAM, which has been at the airline since 1945. The eligibility list included thousands of laid off employees and non-union salaried employees added to the list two years ago with the IAM’s support.

A Reactionary Step?

Many longtime union militants and reform activists have wondered aloud if this change of unions represents a victory and an advance for airline labor. Some believe a craft union like AMFA replacing an established union such as the IAM is reactionary and should not be supported in principle. A corrupt and undemocratic “industrial” union, the argument goes, is still better for the rank and file than a democratic craft union.

But the craft union/industrial union issue was hardly involved in the mechanics’ revolt against the IAM and the decision to join AMFA. It was the experience the mechanics have had with the IAM, and the positive record of AMFA.

The erosion of the IAM began before 1994 but accelerated with the Employee Stock Ownership (ESOP) scheme at United the IAM forced down our throats in the contract that year. It was then that the IAM began its final transformation from a weak union into a union that thought it could play on both sides of the bargaining table representing workers and “employee-owners” of the company.

The ESOP was the biggest concessionary contract ever made in the history of aviation. We took a pay cut and agreed to reduced wages and benefits until 2000, when the contract was open for renegotiation. As a result, wages at United fell drastically behind those at other airlines over this period. In return, we got United stock, but of a special kind. It couldn’t be sold, and could only be redeemed when an employee left United. So, it was a retirement scheme. Workers who retired when the stock was high in the bubble of the 1990s regained some of what they had lost in 1994. But the stock sank lower and lower until it is almost worthless today, as United is under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The IAM continues to defend its decision to endorse ESOP.

The worst feature of ESOP was the propaganda from the IAM and the company that since we were now “employee owners,” the interests of the workers and the company were identical. The ESOP was a cancerous tumor. IAM leaders began inviting top company officials to union functions, including membership meetings. Managers had favorable articles and lengthy comments published in the IAM newspapers. Worker solidarity was eroded. As part of the deal, the IAM got to appoint one member of the UAL Board of Directors. The IAM representative voted with management on every important anti-worker decision made by the Board. Never once did the representative present a proposal to the membership (even as a straw poll) for our approval or rejection.

Decisions were made behind members’ backs, who had to follow the rumor mills and company propaganda to vainly try to learn our fate. The incumbent IAM officials saw the members more and more as problems for their scheme to work with management against our interests. They became close partners with top management as more concessions were wrung from us. The contract language became almost meaningless as management imposed its will with tacit support from the IAM. United “outsourced” more and more of our work with little resistance from the IAM. Only rank and file militant action through votes against bad deals and rumbling on the shop floor and by line mechanics convinced top management that the IAM officials weren’t truly speaking for mechanics and related.

When the negotiations began in 2000, as the “investment period” (our final payment of concessions) of the ESOP came to a close, the IAM refused to tell the membership what was going on. When pilots launched a campaign to win big wage increases to catch up to what was given up during the ESOP, the IAM officials refused to support what became known as “the summer of hell.” When mechanics in Los Angeles began to press our case for a new contract during this period, the IAM blamed “outsiders” for their agitation and did nothing when the company moved to fire the mechanics. The company took this inaction (correctly seen as a betrayal) as a sign of weakness and got a temporary court injunction against any future independent actions by mechanics to win a new contract.

Negotiations dragged on and we were still under the 1994 contract. September 11, 2001, set us back further even though mechanics at Northwest Airlines (NWA) under AMFA representation were able to win the best contract in the industry.

In 2002 we did finally get a temporary wage increase up to the levels of the other airlines (coming after the NWA advance) for some months, but the IAM had openly agreed with the company that if bankruptcy threatened, the union would negotiate new concessions, which is what happened.

The final nail in the IAM’s coffin occurred April 29 when under the gun of the bankruptcy court, a new concession contract endorsed by the IAM was passed containing more give aways to the company of nearly $800 million per year until 2009 as part of UAL’s restructuring. The next day, after the pact approved, the certification election was announced. AMFA had submitted cards for 63 percent of the eligible voters after mechanics had said enough is enough.

The AMFA alternative

What is the AMFA alternative to the practice of the IAM? AMFA seeks to organize and represent all mechanics/technicians at the major and regional airlines, and fixed based operators. AMFA, formed in 1962 and winning its first contract in 1964, is not affiliated to the AFL-CIO. National Director O.V. Delle-Femine, then a licensed Airframe and Powerplant mechanic at American Airlines, launched AMFA after he ran up against the Transport Workers Union (TWU) officials’ refusal to protect the interest of mechanics. His vision of a democratic craft union was never seen as anti-AFL-CIO or anti-other-airline-workers. As he has explained repeatedly, AMFA is simply “pro-mechanic.”

AMFA is a craft union with a philosophy of bottom-up unionism. Its motto of “put accountability and democracy back into unionism” is what’s missing in the AFL-CIO. We won at United because rank and file mechanics rejected the elitism of the IAM officialdom and the lack of genuine democracy. It had little to do with craft versus industrial style unionism that many on the left and reform wing of the established unions falsely believe.

The IAM’s policies of concession bargaining, talking militant while making deals behind the backs of the membership, is the fundamental reason why AMFA is now the collective bargaining agent at United, Southwest (the most profitable carrier and where the Teamsters apparatus AMFA overthrew is even more powerful than the IAM’s), and six other airlines. AMFA is one of the few unions gaining members and it is doing so against attacks by managements and the AFL-CIO officials.

“Strength in numbers” is a correct idea for unionism. But for the officials of the IAM it was pure demagogy. For AMFA it is aimed at uniting mechanics at all the airlines under one powerful craft union. It is then possible to form alliances with other airline employees to take on the bosses. AMFA at Northwest, for example, has given solidarity with the flight attendants and other employees when in conflict with management.

AMFA is not a dues collecting machine but a professional union that knows which side of the table it sits on and how best to represents its members.

AMFA represents the best tradition of militant independent unionism. It rejects secret negotiations and signing any “letters of confidentiality” with management.

During contract negotiations, AMFA mandates “open negotiations” where it moves negotiations from station to station and employee group to employee group where 25 rank and file observers watch the negotiators and report back to the floor. The negotiators are elected, not appointed. This keeps the union and company representatives “honest.”

Alliances of all employees for the common good is also a stand of AMFA, which is why the AMFA Constitution states it will honor union picket lines and show solidarity with other workers in conflicts with their employers.

At the first meeting between leaders of AMFA and officers at UAL (the parent company of United) World Headquarters after the July 14 victory, management tried to get AMFA to sign a letter of confidentiality to look at certain financial data. AMFA leaders said whatever they saw the members would see too. They pushed the confidential material back across the table.

In other discussions with members and management, AMFA said it would press firmly the enforcement of contract language even though AMFA did not negotiate the contract, while pushing the envelope where we can.

At Northwest Airlines, AMFA is refusing to accept any wage concessions. AMFA states that the wages and benefits should be protected even as airlines downsize so when the upturn begins workers coming off layoff will get the same wages they had before. IAM negotiated wage givebacks have not prevented layoffs at United, for example.

Today mechanics at NWA continue to make on average $5 per hour more than mechanics at United and American. At American, big concessions were recently wrung from the Transport Workers Union, another AFL-CIO affiliated union. If give backs are accepted by membership vote, AMFA will only give short-term loans, not permanent cuts. And the members discuss and vote on the final language, not a summary.

AMFA does not promise a quick reversal of the setbacks mechanics have suffered at United. It can’t. The bankruptcy court judge still sits, in effect, at the bargaining table so long as United is in Chapter 11. AMFA seeks a seat on the Creditors Committee, which will have the final approval of a reorganization plan. A fight over that plan is possible that can impact the contract. Mechanics and others have already suffered big wage cuts and fear more changes to the pension plans and health benefits.

One of the charges made by the IAM was that AMFA would only care about the mechanics and not other workers now in AMFA. AMFA’s decision to reach out to all related workers in the Class and Craft as decided by the government-appointed National Mediation Board rebutted the claims by the IAM tops. In fact, most of my time as a full-time AMFA area representative in the first two weeks after the victory was helping cleaners facing lay off. (Cleaners were in the same bargaining unit as mechanics, and it was among workers in this bargaining unit that the election of AMFA was held.)

The AFL-CIO and the IAM consider AMFA outside the labor movement, a company union, and has recently threatened to file a suit to stop AMFA National from providing an Internet link to the AFL-CIO website. During our organizing campaign at United, the local Central Labor Councils came to the maintenance base to slander AMFA and give support to the IAM. When AMFA has been in a struggle with a company, the IAM refuses to support it. But AMFA supports the IAM whenever it is in a struggle.

Labor solidarity should include the principle of the democratic right of the rank and file to choose its own representative. United’s mechanics gave their response to this heavy-handed interference by the AFL-CIO in our two to one vote for AMFA.

Labor militants seeking change in their unions should ask themselves: Is AMFA’s policy of rank and file-based volunteer organizing (AMFA does not use outside organizers) not the way forward for the labor movement as a whole? Clearly, the bureaucratic and self-defeating policy of the IAM and the AFL-CIO (what I call narrow-minded arrogance) is a key factor why the labor unions are in decline and represent only 13 percent of American workers.

Wouldn’t Reform Have Been a Better Tactic?

As the situation under the IAM worsened in the 1990s, the question for some of us, me included, was this: Could a genuine revolt against the bureaucracy occur among all those at United covered by the IAM—mechanics, cleaners, ramp and stores employees?

Facts are stubborn things. During the 1990s, the only section of the IAM willing to fight the concessions consistently and take on the officialdom was the mechanics. The mechanics had voted in our majority against the ESOP but it passed because the other IAM members were taken in by the officials’ propaganda and voted for it. Every major advance won by workers at United was won by rank and file mechanics that rejected the IAM leaders proposals.

There are some minor rumblings among other IAM represented employees against the misguided policies of the IAM tops. But to date no organized groups are forming to challenge the officials.

Reform was not a viable tactic. The existence of AMFA offered an alternative, at least for the mechanics and related. We could decertify the IAM and vote in AMFA. Not to take this opportunity would have meant waiting for the other IAM workers to begin to fight the company and the union bureaucracy, a process, which could take years. It would demoralize the mechanics who were ready to fight now. Decertification as a tactic of change was the most effective alternative to slow death within the IAM for mechanics.

Not to have taken the road of decertifying the IAM and electing AMFA would not have furthered reform of the IAM, but set it back by demoralizing the most militant section, the mechanics. Now, AMFA is the vanguard of workers at United, including those still in the IAM, who can be inspired by its example.

It was its ESOP concessionary policy that turned many longtime reform activists in the IAM to support the decertification effort by AMFA. AMFA, which had supporters on the property since the 1960s and had four previous attempts to replace the IAM, became the viable alternative to save unionism at United for mechanics. 

AMFA’s critique of the IAM and its opposite orientation in action, and the fact that the most militant mechanics were AMFA supporters, won me and other reluctant pro-industrial style union supporters over to the need to break up the IAM and turn the mechanics section into the leading group of workers fighting for all employees at United.

AMFA Points the Way for Labor

Changing unions was the first step to revealing the fighting spirit of the mechanics. Without that change, there would be no future at United for mechanics and related. The response to date from the floor has been positive and sends a signal to management that mechanics expect to be treated with respect and will stand up for our rights.

The aims of AMFA in this context are to first close the barn door to more concessions and stop the erosion of the contract. Too much work has already been lost; nearly half the mechanics are out of work since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack.

Based on AMFA’s democratic principles and its philosophy of treating members with respect based on our knowledge, skill and integrity, the mechanics’ and related workers are starting to regain some confidence and are more ready than ever to stand up and fight for a better future at the airline.

And in doing so we can show what other workers, including the ramp and stores workers still in the IAM must do to protect their interests in a climate of a jobless economic recovery and a restructuring airline industry taking place worldwide.

The future for airline labor is tied to unionism that is based on democracy, militancy and broad unity in action among the various unions and employee groups that exist so long as the reactionary Railway Labor Act and other anti-labor laws are still on the books.

I think this experience has lessons for the labor movement as a whole. The “house of labor” framework of the AFL-CIO, where the existing unions are sacrosanct, must be broken through. The labor movement of the 21st century to survive must recognize that the old unions—both craft and industrial type—have increasingly been drawn into defending the capitalist state and its policies, as well as cooperation schemes with the companies and the resulting concessions. The stultifying bureaucracies in these unions have to be overthrown. Tactics in each union will vary, but can include decertification, as we have shown.

It is a radical approach. But it is based on recognition that the unions must be rebuilt to protect and advance the interests of working people.

A democratic and militant union like AMFA, whether it is of the craft or industrial type, can show all workers how to fight back and protect their interests.

Malik Miah is a member of AMFA Local 9 Transition Committee and Interim Area Representative for the Components Shops in San Francisco. Local 9 has 4,600 members, now the largest in the union.





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