Dec 21, 2002
UNITED STATES: Why AMFA represents future for mechanics at United Airlines

SAN FRANCISCO — Mechanics and utility workers at United Airlines face a new representation election. The standoff pits the incumbent union, the International Association of Machinists, against the upstart Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association.

The IAM has represented mechanics and utility workers (cleaners and janitors) for 55 years. It is an affiliate of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). AMFA is an independent union.

The IAM has several hundred thousand dues-paying members; AMFA has 11,000. The IAM has a big apparatus. AMFA has a skeleton national staff and is primarily based on volunteers. This is a classic case of David versus Goliath.

A majority of mechanics have signed cards to get an election to oust the IAM. We support this objective because it is a simple case of turning out a ruling bureaucracy that uses its size and apparatus to prevent the rank and file — the membership — from exercising its control over the union and contract negotiations. Instead of using the large numbers (“strength in numbers†is a common but hollow IAM slogan) to our benefit, the IAM has used its control to fight “dissidents†(the majority) who oppose its dead-end and wrong policies.

In our view, a democratic craft union would be stronger, even with its small size, than a bureaucratic so-called industrial-type union. The former can set the example for all workers at United Airlines (UAL) on what unionism must be to protect our futures.

AMFA uses referendum balloting, and mail-in balloting, ensuring a high turnout, for all elections. In addition, recent contract negotiations with Northwest Airlines were open to rank-and-file observers. Daily updates, with details of both sides’ positions and agreements or disagreements, were published and distributed to members through the internet and frequent printed bulletins.

AMFA is at the forefront of a dynamic new mood among airline workers — speaking publicly, without regard to management’s prerogatives regarding “privacy,†or “politeness.†AMFA exposed the real role of the federal government in its intervention in the airlines dispute through the National Mediation Board (NMB) and George W. Bush’s recent Presidential Emergency Board in support of management.

On March 30 AMFA filed more than 8000 representation cards for mechanics and related workers seeking to unseat the IAM at UAL. To get an election at least 50% plus one signatures must be verified by the NMB. The IAM claims AMFA filed to purposely disrupt UAL/IAM negotiations (which have been stalled since December 2000).

Since the filing, all sorts of wild allegations about AMFA have been circulated over District 141M president Scotty Ford’s signature. In addition, letters from IAM international president Tom Buffenbarger and transportation coordinator Robert Roach have denounced AMFA as “shadowyâ€, “lousy†and “raidersâ€.

What led to this state of affairs?

Declining real wages
Current wages at UAL are at the 1994 level (that’s in 2001 dollars!). Until July 2000, we were at the 1989 level. Shares in UAL were supposed to compensate for the 20% plus concessions wrested from us in a pincer’s grip by Stephen Wolf (UAL’s former CEO) and the IAM. Instead they have steadily devalued to the point that even optimistic estimates place individual workers’ losses at $50,000 plus over the six-year Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) contract.

The IAM’s concessions bought it a place on UAL’s board of directors. The international president, without consulting the workers at United who made the concessions, appointed a former IAM international vice-president, John Peterpaul. His role as a junior partner on the board has been to go along with top management’s anti-worker policies. This included voting against the pilots’ representative (who is elected by the pilots) in April 2000 for United's decision to buy US Airways. Today the IAM leaders at United say they oppose that merger while the IAM's “Grand Lodge†(international officers) once again nominated Peterpaul to the UAL board.

But those are not the only reasons United mechanics are angry. Along with the top-down structure of the Grand Lodge and the steady decline in wages has been the headlong rush of the IAM toward accommodation with an increasingly hostile management — to the point where most mechanics view the IAM as simply another arm of management.

In addition, because of the impossibility of gaining access to the union apparatus, members are increasingly dispirited and disenchanted with the IAM as an organization. They no longer see it as ours.

The UAL ESOP was the final coup in a series of major setbacks for workers at United. Beginning with two-tier wages in 1985, then three-tier for food-service workers in 1989 and the selling of the food service in 1994, United management adopted a slash and burn strategy. The IAM officials’ response was a mixture of anger, fear and accommodation. The one thing they did not do was fight.

When the ESOP was approved by a narrow margin, most people adopted a wait-and-see attitude. A new management initiated some real improvements in the work environment, and though wages had been cut, the stock workers were accumulating seemed to be skyrocketing in value, so there wasn’t much trouble.

When the time for the mid-term wage adjustment came, the IAM negotiated a two-year, 6% increase, which was approved by non-mechanic employees, but rejected by mechanics. Management responded with an offer of the contractual maximum of 10%. Things were clearly not going well for the IAM.

Another ominous development concerned the growing integration of the union and management. Workers were berated by union and management alike to pitch in and make UAL more profitable. The IAM’s “representative†on the UAL board of directors, John Peterpaul, openly spoke of his “fiduciary responsibility†to all shareholders, eschewing any idea that he was on the board to represent the union membership’s interests.

Pilots fight back
During the summer of 2000 the pilots’ union was in negotiations with UAL, and flight operations began to suffer as disgruntled pilots turned down overtime, stretching the understaffed flight crews to their limit. As some mechanics attempted to express solidarity with the pilots, the IAM chastised them, and when more than 100 mechanics were fired in Los Angeles for conducting an alleged “sick outâ€, the IAM responded with a letter branding the fired workers “outsidersâ€.

Though many of them eventually got their jobs back, some have been permanently fired. For some, this was a qualitative turning point for the IAM.

AMFA filed for a representation election March 30 because it needed to beat an April 2 deadline, after which the USAir group would have been included in the vote, setting back the organising campaign for years.

The IAM defeated AMFA in 1994, in a disputed election which led to some rule changes and the adoption of new ballot standards by the NMB. This time, however, the situation is different. The IAM no longer has much support among mechanics, and many are attracted by AMFA’s track record, especially with the recent negotiations at Northwest Airlines. (The recent agreement at Northwest raises mechanics’ wages 25%, and 35% over the life of the 4-year agreement. Pensions are more than doubled. Top rates for cleaners are the best in the industry. The contract beats every category of the IAM tentative pact rejected by the members in 1998. Many changes in contract language empower the mechanics in disputes with management, and place the onus on management in discipline cases. The full text can be viewed on AMFA’s web site at <>.)

The NMB will decide in the next few weeks whether there will be an election. Mechanics who want full democracy, and a union that will represent them against management, are supporting AMFA. If the experience of the Northwest Airlines’ mechanics is any indication, AMFA’s victory at UAL will be a giant step forward for UAL mechanics, and for all airline workers.

We gave critical support to the IAM in 1994 because a majority of mechanics opposed the ESOP and were prepared to fight the IAM policies. This resistance never materialised within the IAM. The Grand Lodge decided to set up a mechanics and related district (141M) but with the same undemocratic structures.

With the demise of the IAM as a bona fide union and the success of AMFA at Alaska Airlines (1994) and Northwest (1998 and current contract), we along with many other former and current IAM shop stewards are backing AMFA.

The fundamental issue for us isn’t “craft†unionism as some supporters of the IAM have claimed. The real issue is much simpler: rank and file democracy and control versus bureaucratic domination by a small ruling group.

[Malik Miah and Rich Lesnik are mechanics at United Airlines in San Francisco and members of the AMFA UAL organising committee in San Francisco.]
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amfa Raid at UAL Scares Wall Street Investors

The amfa has petitioned the National Mediation Board to conduct a representation election for the Mechanic and Related employees at United Airlines. It is the sixth attempt by amfa to hold an NMB election at United. The IAM believes amfa's challenge will frighten off investors and will damage the employees position at a critical stage of contract negotiations.

The IAM is currently in contract negotiations with United as the carrier is reorganizing under Chapter 11 bankruptcy. IAM General Vice President Robert Roach, Jr. stated this petition by amfa could not have come at a worse time for the employees and the carrier. He stated the challenge could create an image of conflict hanging over the head of United and may make debtor-in-possession financiers nervous. Roach also said he worries that amfa's challenge could lead United to try to exploit a perceived conflict during its restructuring talks, noting that amfa's previous representation bid damaged the IAM's position during contract negotiations concluded last year with United. Roach said support for amfa by mechanics has eroded since then because of their tactics.

amfa's timing is deliberate as it is trying to take advantage employee dissatisfaction with wage cuts, which all major airlines are having to negotiate in these trying times for the industry. This included Northwest where amfa has its most members.

O.V. Delle-Femine, national director of amfa admitted that while they received enough cards to trigger and NMB election, that it not a barometer of support for amfa among the UAL mechanics.

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