Why United’s Mechanics Voted “No”

by Barry Sheppard

The author is a machinist at United Airlines. His article, and the ones that follow, are from the web site Labor Tuesday for Dec. 10, 2002. They have been edited for Labor Standard.

The bankruptcy filing by United Airlines, the second largest airline in the world, is the next step in the war it is waging against its workers. Threatening to go bankrupt was used as a club to get the pilots, flight attendants, and ramp and other support workers to vote for massive cuts in their own wages and benefits. However, United’s mechanics voted down the concessions the leadership of the International Association of Machinists (IAM) urged them to accept. The vote of the mechanics was one of the very few bright spots in the American labor movement in recent years.

The concessions were supposedly to help United stay out of bankruptcy by getting loan guarantees from the government. But United was on course for bankruptcy whether or not the loan guarantees were granted. The government board made it clear that even if the mechanics had accepted the concessions, more drastic rollbacks were needed.

United can utilize the bankruptcy proceedings to force bigger cuts in wages and benefits. The company can now ask the bankruptcy judge to arbitrarily abrogate the contracts it now has with the pilots, flight attendants, and machinists. Any of his rulings can be appealed—to an equally pro-business review board. United executives are now also demanding major changes in work rules.

Another thing that will happen is that United will get loans for what is called debtor-in-possession financing to be able to keep running during the bankruptcy proceedings, from a consortium of Citizens Group, J.P. Morgan Chase, Bank One, and the lending arm of General Electric. These lenders would get first claim on the airline’s assets, ahead of other creditors.

What this could mean is evident from the case of US Airways, which is in bankruptcy. That company, which has already forced concessions from its workers, is demanding more. The spokesman for the principal debtor-in-possession for US Airways, David Bronner, has stated that either the workers accept these further cuts or he will force the company to shut down and be liquidated. “What’s their alternative?” he asked. Without the concessions, “they’re gone.”

United workers, and not just the mechanics, are angry. Some background is in order. In 1994 United wanted concessions from its workers, pleading poverty. The pilots union and the IAM bought into an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP). The flight attendants didn’t.

Under the ESOP, the pilots and machinists got stock in the company in return for a wage cut. Wages were frozen at the new rate until 2000, when the contract would again be opened for change. But this stock was unusual. It couldn’t be sold until the employee left the company. So it was really a retirement plan, and was coupled with the company no longer paying anything into the 401(K) plan.

The stock did go up, to a high of about $100 in 1997. Those employees who retired then got something back from their sacrifice. Now the stock is worth about $1.

Supposedly, the ESOP meant that the company was now “employee-owned” with 55 percent of the stock. But it was not “employee-controlled” of course.

On the Board of Directors the IAM had one person, the pilots one, and one seat was reserved for salaried employees. The rest were the creatures of the private investors, who continued to run the company. The IAM person was appointed by the top IAM officials. He never once voted in any other way than with management. The pilots elected their person, and management appointed the representative of the salaried people.

A negative thing developed. Union solidarity began to erode, as workers thought of themselves as “owners.” The IAM newspaper began to run articles by management, and the IAM pushed the line that labor and capital were one big happy family.

Management also promised that when the contract was up for changes in 2000, there would be a “seamless” transition. Guess what – management lied. When negotiations began prior to the end of the old contract, it turned out that the company was playing hardball. In the six years since 1994 United raked in billions. The workers wanted to at least catch up with what workers for other airlines were getting. But that’s not what management was proposing.

Once the pilots understood that they had been had, they voted out their old leadership and put in a new one. In the summer of 2000, they began to refuse overtime, their legal right. This job action disrupted United’s flight schedules, and the company capitulated and gave the pilots the increase to bring them up to pilots in other airlines.

In the hidebound and bureaucratic IAM, however, no such leadership change was possible. And any thought of a real job action is completely alien to these preachers of the “team” concept of “labor-management cooperation” wherein the workers always get screwed.

From the time the IAM contract was open for change in June 2000, the IAM conducted its negotiations in secret. We got fliers every once in a while telling us things were going right along, but which contained nothing concrete. Negotiations dragged. We were still under the terms of the old contract, at 1994 wages.

Another union, the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA) had been seeking to replace the IAM as the bargaining unit for the mechanics and related employees. After the debacle of the IAM- recommended ESOP, and the foot-dragging by the company, keeping us on the terms of the ESOP contract, anger at the IAM grew. Support for AMFA grew too.

AMFA had a lot going for it in the eyes of most mechanics. It is democratic. Its officers and negotiators are elected and can easily be replaced. Its negotiations are not secret but open to the membership. AMFA had won at Northwest Airlines, and was in negotiations. Rank and file workers could sit in on the negotiations (if too many showed up, lots were drawn to see who would sit in on them). Reports were made weekly (sometimes daily) to the membership on what was going on. An informed and participating membership is a mobilized membership, and this power resulted in the Northwest mechanics getting the best deal in the industry.

In the summer of 2001, AMFA turned in cards from a majority of mechanics at United calling for a vote for representation. These cards were turned in to a presidential commission overseeing the negotiations. (The airlines are under the Railway Labor Act, and so are not under the NLRB.)

The IAM officials, in collusion with management, then “found” hundreds of IAM “members” not previously accounted for. Among these were secretaries who had never been members or paid dues to the union, people in management, people who had quit the company 25 years ago, and so forth. So the government commission ruled that AMFA missed having enough cards to call an election—by six cards, so the election wasn’t held that AMFA would have won hands down.

Finally, in the early months of 2002, with the hot breath of AMFA breathing down the necks of both the IAM and the company, a new contract was proposed that would bring us up to the level of American’s mechanics. But there was a poison pill in the contract. The IAM had agreed, in the contract, to reopen it if United said it might go bankrupt. The membership voted for it by a small majority. It’s this contract that the IAM just proposed be jettisoned in favor of the concessions United wanted. It was this betrayal that the mechanics rejected.

While the IAM officials were campaigning for a “yes” vote on the concessions, AMFA put out an e-mail to the mechanics urging a “no” vote.

United workers face a tough fight. We have to face not only the company but also now the bankruptcy court. And we have one hand tied behind our backs by the IAM. United has made drastic cuts in its workforce already, due to the economic downturn. (The fall-off in flying after September 11, 2001, was temporary.) United may threaten to close shop entirely. Layoffs and company failures are part of this capitalist system. We shouldn’t accept the argument that we workers are the cause of such catastrophes, because we aren’t. It is always better to fight than to agree to being hosed.

Why Johnny Can’t Organize

by Ron Blascoe

The author is a steward with Local 4848 of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) in Madison, Wisconsin, and is a member of the South Central Federation of Labor’s Organizing Committee and Education Committee. Click here to contact him.       

From time to time the AFL-CIO’s top brass rediscover that we are in deep trouble. Union membership continues to fall and, more frightening still, there is no turnaround in sight. So we see sporadic surges of new thinking and renewed commitments to organizing. But, in spite of it all, the turning point does not materialize and the slow, steady slide continues.

History and logic tell us that a turnaround will come. But, that same history and logic tell us that when it does, it will not be directed from above by the AFL-CIO or its affiliated internationals. There are too many structural limits and ideological constraints that prevent officials and staff from those organizations from doing what needs to be done. When the turnaround comes, it will come from below and function outside of official channels. Labor officialdom can either lend a hand or just get out of the way.

Labor’s Last Turning Point

One has to go back a long way to find another dramatic turning point for American unionism. In the early 1930s unions were down to about 3 million members and had only grim prospects amidst mass unemployment and a general economic collapse. Yet by the mid-’30s there was a massive movement of workers seeking to organize and they flooded into old American Federation of Labor (AF of L) unions and into the new internationals that were created to handle them.

It was a time when many people came to identify themselves as members of the working class and they saw themselves pitted in a protracted class war against the idle rich. Whole communities instinctively turned to unions as a way to fight for economic security and social justice. By 1935 no one had to convince the rubber workers of Akron that a union was a good idea. All they needed was something to join.

While the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and newly formed international unions like the United Rubber Workers and United Automobile Workers gave this mass movement organizational structure, the movement itself was not built or directed by the CIO. Mass movements are, by definition, out of control and without structure. A single exemplary act or dramatic event sets the idea in motion and the idea itself acquires momentum. Bold actions feed passions which, in turn, feed yet more bold actions as the idea picks up speed and followers and a movement is born.

But while mass movements are out of control, they are not without leaders. There existed in the ‘30s a relatively large and influential left, whose members were driven by an infectious vision of a just society in which workers get the full measure of the wealth they produce. An honest telling of U.S. labor history shows that many union leaders of that time were influenced by the Communist Party, Socialist Party, Industrial Workers of the World, American Workers Party, or Communist League of America.

The great strikes of 1934 in San Francisco, Toledo, and Minneapolis, which are credited with igniting the mass movement that followed, occurred under diverse conditions and independent local leadership. The leaders of the San Francisco General Strike were influenced by the Communist Party and the Wobblies. Many of the leaders of the auto workers strike in Toledo were associated with A.J. Muste’s American Workers Party, and the Teamsters who led the Minneapolis strike were followers of the Trotskyist Communist League of America. Although few in number, these experienced and indigenous leftists were able to provide ideological direction, strategy, and tactics to a larger circle of militants.

Similarly, the wave of sit-down strikes that came to symbolize the CIO was organized from below. The first sit-downs occurred in non-union tire plants in Akron in 1935 and the idea spread like wildfire throughout the rubber and auto industries. While the CIO eventually endorsed some sit-downs, John L. Lewis was able to tell Michigan Governor Murphy in all honesty that he had not called these strikes, so that if the governor or the company wanted to settle they would have to talk directly with the workers.

Workers broke the law on a wholesale level during this period. It was a common tactic for companies to get injunctions against picketing and plant occupations. It was also normal practice for strike leaders to openly defy these injunctions and denounce the judges and police as tools of the employing class. In many cases the workers organized armies, equipped with baseball bats and bricks, to engage in street battles with scabs, police, and the National Guard. Certainly any action that uses the threat of force or violence to stop scabs or seize private property, as in the case of the sit-down strikes, is illegal. Yet those were the common tactics of the day, and very few militants ever spent more than a few nights in jail.

And we see, time and again in that period, instances of conservative AF of L officials being pushed aside by the left-led masses. When the dockworkers shut down San Francisco, International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) President Joseph Ryan disavowed the strike. The AF of L distanced itself from the Toledo strikers, and Teamster President Dan Tobin called the Minneapolis strike a “wildcat” and denied the local authorization to strike. But in spite of their lofty offices, these labor bosses were irrelevant as events unfolded.

The Organizing Business

Contrast that electrified mass movement that swept the country in the 1930s to the narrow and placid organizing drives practiced by the internationals today, and you begin to see the scope of the problem.

Cooler Passions

Workers need to feel strongly about a union before they are willing to take the risks and put in the effort necessary to organize. But cautious AFL-CIO leaders cannot generate that kind of passion. First, the notion of open class warfare is beyond the pale for pro-capitalist union officials. In their hearts they believe in the American Dream and strive only for a little bigger slice of the pie. And imagine the reaction of “Labor’s Friends” in the Democratic Party if John Sweeney began calling the capitalist class by its proper name.

Workers also need to believe that their organizing efforts will result in significant gains before they are willing to do what is necessary. Yet staff organizers systematically strive to lower workers’ expectations. There are a number of reasons for doing so.

First, an imperative around modern union organizing departments is to get a quick first contract. This is because, in most cases, nobody pays union dues until they have a first contract. And, while no one will put it in these terms, there is no profit in providing services to workers who do not pay dues.

Ask any staff organizer and they will tell you that it is a lot easier to win a representation election than it is to get a good first contract. So, early on in a campaign organizers try to get workers thinking in terms of modest gains and those “intangible benefits” that come with unionization.

Workers are reminded that “Rome wasn’t built in a day” and cautioned that “it will take 10 years to get what we want”—all to prepare them to vote quickly to accept a modest first contract after the conclusion of the representation campaign.

AFL-CIO unions must settle for modest first contracts because they are unwilling to do what is necessary to win good first contracts. For a long time now employers have known that they can generally get away with stonewalling a union at the table because unions will not engage in the kind of militancy that would stop production and thereby cause the employers to back down.

Whenever talk turns to militancy, union officials and their lawyers point out that we open ourselves up to huge financial liability if we break the law and harm the employer’s bottom line. This is obviously true, as we see from cases such as the Charleston, SC, ILA Local 1422, where a union-busting employer and an ambitious and vindictive prosecutor tried to raid union treasuries and jail and bankrupt local leaders. Of course, one might argue that part of the problem is that too many unions have gotten too rich and now have investments and real estate to worry about. Not incidentally, the ILA 1422 Charleston Five were eventually released as a result of a massive international protest, and threats of dock strikes if the state dared take them to trial.

Finally, most unions in this country today see themselves as in the business of providing services to their members. Under the assumptions of this model, if expectations are too high and the union does not deliver, workers are apt to turn on the organization, much like they would turn on their cable company if it did not meet expectations. A better business strategy is to keep expectations low and, thereby, keep the customer satisfied.

So, while a politically safe and legal campaign, in pursuit of modest gains, makes good sense from the standpoint of modern business unionism, it is hardly the stuff that will inspire workers to take the risks and make the extraordinary efforts necessary to organize.

Priced Out of the Market

My local, a unit of about 4,500 state employees, was organized in 1993 at a cost to the American Federation of Teachers of nearly $1 million. Many of us who worked on that campaign understand that it could have been done for a small fraction of that cost.

At one point we had 10 staffers on the payroll, some of whom were flown in and out from their home states and put up in a first class hotel whenever they were in town. They rented offices, bought PCs and a refrigerator. Naturally, the effective work of that drive—the writing and distribution of literature, the worksite meetings, the gathering of signatures, and the phone banking—was all done by unpaid volunteers from the unit. This example is probably not unusual.

Some internationals, such as the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE), have made a substantial commitment of money to organizing, and the most recent AFL-CIO convention called for spending even more. This is based on sound business reasoning that you can only increase profitability by increasing investment.

And as more and more organizing money comes available, no union officials want to end up the year with a large sum of unspent money in their organizing line item. So, to demonstrate their commitment to organizing, they ensure every dime gets spent. But, ironically, by throwing huge sums of money into a drive they price themselves out of most markets. If an organizing drive now costs a million dollars, good business sense dictates that you have to be very selective and pick only big easy projects.

Here in Madison, Wisconsin, for example, we have over 300 large non-union private employers. And although each sector is already partially organized and most internationals have a presence here, outside of a nearly invisible campaign by the HERE, there is virtually no officially-sponsored organizing going on. The common excuse is that the internationals need to focus resources on potentially more profitable projects elsewhere.

Job Security

We have seen first hand in our area instances where union officers and paid staff have actively scuttled organizing efforts so that they could hold on to their jobs. In one large statewide AFSCME council, for example, the Executive Board was elected every two years by a slim margin, and the Board and staff feared (probably rightly) that they would be out on the street if two large units within their jurisdiction ever got organized and brought their per capita votes to a convention. So, while they made substantial commitments of lip service to organizing those units, they made sure no effective organizing occurred.

This was exacerbated by the fact that the vocal advocates of aggressive organizing within the council were then forced into opposition and became factional critics of the powers-that-be. Again, those already in power came to associate organizing the unorganized with opponents trying to unseat or fire them, and they were in a position to make it impossible to organize within the existing structure.

We can hope that circumstances like this are not widespread. But the imperative to protect the jobs of the faction in charge may help explain some otherwise inexplicable organizing failures in the past.

What Is To Be Done?

If the official leadership of the AFL-CIO and affiliated internationals cannot organize, what is to be done? Here, again, the labor left may take some guidance from the last great turning point 65 years ago.

Turning To Your Labor Council

Local AFL-CIO labor councils are made up of delegates elected from affiliated unions in a geographic area. As such, these bodies cut across internationals, jurisdictions, and sectors and tend to collect some of the more class-conscious workers in the community. They have great potential, and activists should get involved and push them to the limit.

In 1995, the new Sweeney administration at the AFL-CIO initiated the Union Cities program to jump-start local labor councils. The multiphase plan called for more involvement by rank and file union members, increased mobilization, and coalition building with community activists. While this change in focus will not create a labor movement, it creates some interesting opportunities. The “Street Heat” element of the initiative, for example, asks union and community activists to sign a pledge to participate in actions called by the council. If done right, the result is a communications network and a list of activists who can be called into action by a majority vote of council delegates. The “Street Heat” network and list is potentially one of the most valuable tools at our disposal.

The Union Cities initiative also urges local labor councils to increase contact and cooperation with minority groups in the community. If implemented aggressively, this would bring new people, with new energy and perspectives, into the class struggle. Where this element of Union Cities is not implemented in a particular local labor council, activists can seize the initiative and set up new liaison organizations, such as a chapter of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists or a Latino Workers Project. Where such efforts might have been blocked by union functionaries in the past, now they have official sanction of the AFL-CIO and so are much harder to turn back.

Many labor councils have standing committees on organizing and education. These committees may provide opportunities to initiate actions. Even if such committees are not allowed to do what needs to be done, they provide an important forum for the labor left to talk to the very kind of people with whom we need to be working.

Going Independent

But we should have no illusions. The AFL-CIO’s labor councils remain bound by the structural and ideological limits of their parent organization. There is the possibility for some of the elements of the Union Cities initiative, for example, to gain momentum and break free of the gravity of the council. Where official standing committees of a labor council are receptive to aggressive class-struggle organizing, we may join and give them direction. Yet at some point labor officials will draw the line and we will need to go outside of official structures to organize.

An independent organizing committee must be able to do everything, from generating leads to negotiating a contract, and it must do so from outside of the existing AFL-CIO structure. It must aggressively generate leads, follow them up by providing training and support for in-plant organizing committees, carry out representation campaigns, and assist in negotiating a first contract. Leads and in-plant organizing committees should not be turned over to international staff, and even newly formed locals should not be affiliated with an international until they are strong enough to hold their own against the conservative bureaucracy.

Getting Militant

In order to organize and achieve a good first contract, we must be willing and able to engage in militant tactics. Unions will only become relevant in workers’ lives if they start to win in big and dramatic ways. And unions cannot win big by playing by the rules that have been set down for them by the employing class. Again, the history of American labor shows that the greatest gains in membership came when unions were willing to engage in tactics like plant occupations, mass picketing to stop scabs, and citywide general strikes.

Those tactics, of course, are illegal, just as they were when they were employed so successfully in the past. We cannot expect official sanction for militant actions by the unions. We know that the great upheavals of the past were not sanctioned—and were often actively disavowed—by the union officials of the day. In some cases this might be a ruse, where the international or local winks and denies official strike authorization. In other cases, however, organizing will take the form of a genuine insurgency against a hide-bound conservative union bureaucracy or faction. Either way, militancy will not be directed from above.

Building a Movement

The point, of course, is not to organize one shop at a time or even to organize a whole sector or city. The goal is to recreate a militant class-conscious labor movement.

To create a movement, local leaders must be able to inspire workers with a vision of a just society, to raise hopes and expectations, and be able to make people mad enough to do what it takes to get organized. That means our campaigns must have a class-struggle edge and be willing to take up the fight for broad issues of social justice such as the fight against racism and for the rights of immigrant workers.

Although the left parties are only a shadow of what they were in the ‘30s, most would be willing to pour their meager resources into a resurgent labor movement, just as they did back then. Party members certainly would be joined by independent leftists and militants, many of whom have been waiting impatiently for something like this to come along.

While AFL-CIO higher-ups can cooperate with such a campaign, they cannot start it or lead it. The model for today’s labor officials may be the CIO’s John L. Lewis who sometimes engaged in inflammatory class war rhetoric and knowingly used Reds as organizers, but whose real contribution was to give organizational form to a movement which he did not create.

As battles and victories occur, we must be able to tout them among the unorganized workers through independent information sources, such as an organizing newspaper, leaflets, and victory rallies. Bold actions inspire and feed the passions, which will create the momentum that will sweep workers along in a new labor movement.

History and logic tell us that the working class will always come back fighting. This will happen periodically so long as capitalism endures. We should also know that institutions that were set up to manage class peace cannot be transformed into instruments of class war. The leaders of the AFL-CIO can help create the conditions for an uprising, but at some point they may just have to get out of the way. A new labor movement can only be created by local rank and file activists, working outside of existing institutions and the law.


The following excerpts are from an article by David Moberg titled “Unions Against the War” in the Dec. 6, 2002, issue of In These Times

When members of a 21,000-member Teamsters local in Chicago proposed taking a stand against war in Iraq in mid-October, Local 705 Secretary-Treasurer Gerry Zero thought “it sounded like a good resolution we could have some debate over.”

But the results surprised even Zero, as Teamsters took the floor, many identifying themselves as veterans of wars from Vietnam to Desert Storm. “We had 400 members [at the meeting] and all of the debate was one-sided against the war,” Zero says. “There was only one vote against the resolution. I was amazed. I expected an even split.”

Zero himself argued that there’s no need for war. “We’re looking at the oil there,” he says. “Maybe Bush is using it as an excuse to cover up other shortcomings of the administration. We’re looking at an Iraq that has no ties I can see with bin Laden or other terrorist groups and letting other countries like Saudi Arabia, that do have ties, slide on by.”

All unions should take a stand, Zero says, since the prospect of war “affects your members, their families, their kids. They talk about this costing $200 billion, and who knows how long we’ll have to stay there and how many more billions. Where will they get that money? They just gave it away with tax cuts to wealthy people.”

Zero’s outspoken public stance is still rare in the labor movement. But privately many union leaders express deep reservations or personal opposition to a war in Iraq. Although there was initially strong labor support after the 9/11 attacks for the war on terrorism and bombing of Afghanistan, union distrust of Bush has grown dramatically with the Administration’s relentless attacks on the labor movement and civil liberties under the guise of national security, as well as its use of the president’s wartime popularity to push an extremely pro-business legislative agenda.

However, many union leaders fear that opposing the war will divert scarce resources to an effort that may ultimately divide their members. Although some limited polling suggests that union members roughly mirror general public opinion on war against Iraq, there are also anecdotal indications (like Zero’s experience) that union members may be receptive to educational efforts against a unilateral U.S. war. But so far few labor unions have even taken the simple step of providing alternative views (the labor equivalent of campus teach-ins) that would help members better understand what’s at stake.