United Airlines Mechanics Face Concessions after Vote

by Rich Lesnik and Malik Miah

[This article, from the web site Labor Tuesday for March 12, 2002, has been edited for Labor Standard. Rich Lesnik and Malik Miah are mechanics in San Francisco and members of the local AMFA Organizing Committee.]

Three weeks after soundly rejecting a government-proposed  contract by 68 to 32 percent, mechanics and utility workers at United Airlines (UAL) approved a new contract March 5 with a 59 percent “yes” vote.

The turn-about came after the top union leadership (District 141-M of the International Association of Machinists, IAM) quickly endorsed the slightly tweaked version of the rejected contract. After promising management they would do so, the top officials started campaigning to get the pact approved even before the text was shown to members.

The new agreement, if fully implemented, would by 2005 give veteran mechanics a wage increase of up to 37 percent. The last contract became amendable in July 2000. Base pay has been stuck at 1994 levels since employees gave back  wages for “majority ownership” of United Airlines.

IAM District President Scotty Ford praised the new pact as “industry-leading” and stressed, “We are happy with what we have achieved.”

UAL CEO Jack Creighton agreed. He told employees and the news media afterwards that top management views the new contract as the first step toward convincing all United employees to give back wages and other benefits. It is part of “a foundation on which to build our strategic plan,” he said. The company aims to convince the firm’s six unions to give back up to $1 billion in concessions. The IAM leaders have become partners in this drive.

The new contract is both “industry-leading” and unprecedented. United Airlines agreed to wages it knows it can legally demand changes to by simply proclaiming a threat of possible bankruptcy. No other union at UAL or in the airline industry has ever signed a letter of agreement that agreed in advance to negotiate, “in good faith” or otherwise, for concessions.

The main reason a majority of mechanics opposed the government’s PEB [Presidential Emergency Board] pact, and don’t trust the IAM leadership, is because of a poison pill “linkage letter” inserted by the government after being negotiated by company officials and IAM leaders. That poison pill tied proposed wage increases and benefits to concessions in order to return UAL to profitability. How long the concessions would last was never spelled out.

Amazingly, the new letter of agreement sticks to the basis provision of the PEB language. It’s even worse since it drops reference to “substantially all” other employees joining the recovery plan along with the IAM.

The IAM letter simply says it will “bargain in good faith” for concessions if “during the first six months following date of signing” the company “proposes to implement a financial recovery plan to address the company’s severe financial condition or as a prudent alternative to a bankruptcy filing.”

When asked on the IAM website why they agreed to keep the letter knowing that most employees opposed it, IAM officials replied simply: the company would not sign the contract without it. The company sees the letter as the legal basis to reopen and change the contract if the IAM doesn’t play ball on giving concessions.

The main reason the IAM leaders came out against the PEB pact a few days before the first vote was not because of the linkage letter or inadequate pension and retroactive pay. The IAM leadership did not want the precedent of a government-imposed contract. That would expose their two-year failure to negotiate a contract. By striking “PEB” from the cover and replacing it with “IAM,” they avoided that stigma. It is now “their” contract.

The improvements to win the votes include a little more retroactive pay, but still 40 percent less than we are owed. Retroactive pay starts December 2002 (conveniently after the “recovery plan” is launched) instead of March 2003 and continues for eight quarters. Some mechanics will receive more license pay. And, there is a slight improvement in pension pay for mechanics, but not for lower-paid utility workers.

The tweaking is so modest and cynical it was a slap in the face for most mechanics. As one Chicago mechanic put it, the pact passed because the IAM leadership targeted the 18 percent of the yes voters it needed to reach 50 percent plus one for approval.

The fact that members will be able to vote on the concessions is not new either, as the IAM officials claim. In any event, it’s almost meaningless since we lost the right to strike by accepting the new contract. We can vote down concessions and the company and the union leaders will come back and say implementation of future increases depends on immediate concessions.

The company and IAM officials will jointly claim that if we refuse the likely 10 percent or more immediate concessions, the engine shop or another facility will be sold off. It’s the classic method used by employers and self-serving union officials.

That’s what happened in 1985 when the “B SCALE” five-year progression was voted on and in 1994 when workers bought the employee-ownership scheme.

The fact that 41 percent of mechanics voted “no” shows that there is a desire to fight. Even those who voted ‘yes” did so feeling they couldn’t get any more from IAM negotiators who echo management arguments.

Sentiments are running high on the floor that the fight is far from over. There is hope that the contract will be fully implemented without wage concessions and that the retroactive increases will be paid. There is fear that worse may come if the economy doesn’t turn around.

But there is a desire among most mechanics that the IAM must be replaced. Many workers are signing cards for the rival, more militant union, the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA), which aims to file for a decertification election later in the year. Only a decision by the National Mediation Board (set up under the Railway Labor Act) to add over 2,000 employees not paying dues to District 141-M prevented an election last August.

Other mechanics seeking to reform the IAM are beginning to organize against future concessions too.

Meanwhile the IAM and company tops have agreed to put an IAM representative on the UAL Board of Directors. The current IAM rep, John Peterpaul, has been a willing tool of management. The elected head of District 141, which represents some 23,000 ramp, stores, and customer service workers, will join the Board. Their contract is pending and must be ratified before the “recovery plan” is put in place.

The UAL CEO plans direct negotiations with the unions by late March. The pilots’ union leadership is ready to grant concessions as long as their members get something real in return. The flight attendants’ union leadership (the only employee group that didn’t participate in the Employee Stock Ownership Plan 9 years ago) so far says it won’t give back any concessions.

The coming year promises to be interesting at least, and hopefully will give us an opportunity to reestablish a genuine fighting union for UAL’s mechanics and other workers.