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Teamsters' Gamble Pays Off Big Taking On United Airlines

Taking On United Airlines


United Airlines (UAL) mechanics fed up with an unrelenting series of concessions voted to change unions twice in the last five years. The latest change came this week. This time the Teamsters are in and the independent Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA) are out.

Mechanics overwhelmingly rejected AMFA in results announced March 31, 2008. Teamsters received 4113 votes against 2641 for AMFA. This 60/40 split favoring the Teamsters is a high ratio by any election standard. Participation was also significant.

An impressive 79% of 9300 eligible mechanics actually voted. The list included 3700 on recall from lay off according to the National Mediation Board (NMB) which administers the Railway Labor Act (RLA).

Reaching this important threshold was critical.

The RLA requires that a combined total "50% plus one" eligible voters must actually cast a ballot for either of the unions on the ballot or the existing union and the current labor contract are both voided.

These stringent RLA stipulations have previously resulted in the removal of union certification and agreements at airlines.

In the late 1980s, for example, the Teamsters themselves were ousted at US Airways under these circumstance. Representation was not returned for another 10 years until the International Association of Machinists (IAM), AFL-CIO, won representation for 7700 baggage handlers.

Risking elimination of an existing collective bargaining agreement is a genuine concern every time a current certified bargaining representative is challenged in a RLA election.

Many trade union observers were, therefore, extremely concerned that the existing mechanic contract at UAL would be voided if there was less than majority participation.

Accordingly, the largest union at UAL, the International Association of Machinists (IAM), AFL-CIO, instructed its members to strongly urge mechanic co-workers to vote regardless of their preference.
Undoubtedly, the Teamster union was the overwhelming favorite of these non-mechanic unionists at UAL even though they were not eligible to vote.

AMFA often targeted "unskilled workers" for ridicule such as their not uncharacteristic, notorious proclamation in 1994, that "the professional lives and collective bargaining aspirations of skilled craftsmen cannot be dictated by individuals who preponderantly wipe tray tables, dispose of trash, or clean the exterior of an aircraft with a mop."

Fortunately, an effective and spirited Teamster campaign resulted in an impressive victory. The largest union in North America pulled out all the stops.

On the eve of the election, Teamster President James Hoffa and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom held a well-publicized press conference opposing UAL threats to lease or pare down its large UAL Maintenance Base at SFO.

Hoffa himself participated in plant-gate leafleting. The six million strong Change to Win national union federation also lent weight to the campaign as did Presidential candidate Barack Obama who wrote a letter to mechanics applauding "your efforts to organize with the Teamsters … ."

These dramatic and powerful political initiatives were in sharp contrast to AMFA’s weak and isolated existence as a self-proclaimed "organization of skilled professionals" standing apart from almost every union.

A huge factor in the Teamster victory was also AMFA’s inability to follow through with any of its militant promises to stop concessions. In fact, Teamsters pointed out in door to door visits and in very effective newsletters that there were more layoffs at UAL under AMFA than among any other group of maintenance workers in the industry.

Over 3200 AMFA members got pink slips under AMFA’s watch in their first three years at UAL (2003-2006). This dismal job hemorrhaging duplicated their defeatist record at Northwest Airlines (NWA) where over 5000 members were laid off in the first four years after decertifying the IAM in 1999.

Finally, the personal factor loomed large in the election. The Teamster Organizing Committee included tested unionists deeply respected for their militant leadership over decades at United.

Almost all had been fierce opponents of AMFA’s original separatist appeal for mechanics to break away during the 2003 decertification of the IAM, which then represented over 20,000 other UAL employees.

AMFA Skids Off the Runway

AMFA’s 45-year record never really amounted to much until their recent short-lived successes. Only 439 members were onboard as recently as the mid-1990s when traditional airline unions proved unable to stop concessions. Angry and frustrated mechanics looked outside for new solutions rather than working inside to reform their established transportation unions.

Thus, a tremendous growth spurt for AMFA began in 1999 when they gained 9500 members by decertifying the IAM at NWA. This was followed in 2003 by a gain of 12,000 members by decertifying the IAM at UAL. An AMFA victory at Southwest Airlines in 2003 gained another 1900 mechanics through decertification of the Teamsters.

In a very short span of time, AMFA represented more aircraft mechanics than anyone else.

But their own members have now declared the AMFA experiment, after less than a decade at the helm, a dismal failure. An AMFA offshoot, the Professional Flight Attendants Association (PFAA), was dumped in 2006 by 69% of 9000 flights attendants at NWA after only three years. AMFA itself was decimated at NWA in an ill-advised 2005 strike that left only 800 mechanics remaining today. And now it has been decertified at UAL, which was their largest unit.

Teamster Victory a Blow to UAL

The Teamsters now inherit a huge responsibility to save jobs at United. But they have help; the mechanic contract has important job-security provisions.

Specifically, the collective-bargaining agreement contains a crucial clause limiting UAL’s unilateral right "to sell, lease or otherwise transfer or dispose" of the huge San Francisco Maintenance Base without union approval. UAL threats to contract out mechanic work is a major concern both to the 3100 mechanics and to the other 2000 employees working at the Base.

The enormously significant job-protection language was previously negotiated by the IAM before it was replaced by AMFA. But, like most contract language that does not specifically address wages and benefits, it’s value was not generally appreciated until layoffs appeared on the horizon.

Whereas AMFA proved unable to stop excessive layoffs at NWA and UAL, there is great confidence the Teamsters will work with other UAL unions to make job security a priority.

United Airlines is surely disappointed that the collective bargaining agreement not only remains in effect but that it is now administered by the powerful Teamsters union.

This is a union that understands something AMFA never grasped; militancy begins with establishing unity and organization of the whole workforce, regardless of job description or skill level.

CARL FINAMORE is former President (ret), Air Transport Employees Local Lodge 1781, IAMAW. He can be reached at