How AMFA won vote among mechanics -- the Militant's assessment

Fred Feldman ffeldman at
Fri Aug 8 13:35:36 MDT 2003

The following article represents the assessment of the Militant
newspaper of the victory of Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association
over the International Association of Machinists in the formerly IAM
mechanics' representation vote at United Airlines.  It is of interest
because the author, Ernie Mailhot, was a leader at La Guardia airport
of the IAM-led strike at Eastern Airlines 1989-91. The workers refused
to accept a takeback contract and continued fighting until the
company, having failed in its antiunion drive, went under.

Mailhot seems to base his negative assessment on the craft character
of AMFA and the very narrow craft perspective expressed byits top
leaders.  This criticism is based on fact.

But Mailhot, who knows a lot about United and itsworkers,  gives no
flavor at all of the thinking of the mechanics who voted for AMFA.
His presentation is basically abstract and ideological, revolving
entirely around the concepts of craft vs industrial unionism.

By voting for AMFA, have the mechanics at United really retreated from
industrial unionism, to a course based even more on craft prejudice
and more class-collaborationist than that of the IAM? Or are they
looking for a way to fight that the IAM machinery was more able than
AMFA  to block? Or are there various mixes of views, progressive and
backward?  Do the other workers at United regard the vote as an
expression of craft prejudice or as a well-earned rebuke to the IAM
leaders submission to the bosses' drive for ever more concessions?  Is
the vote a sign of declining or rising resistance among mechanics and
other workers at United?  Has it strengthened the hand of the bosses
and union bureaucrats, and if so, how concretely?  Has it actually
dealt a blow to the unity of the workers at United, and if so how

What about the other unions in the industry? Would, for example,
mergers of all the various unions in the airlines into the IAM UNDER
PRESENT CIRCUMSTANCES be a useful or necessary perspective, or would
it be just a bureaucratic maneuver?  Should workers be fighting for
flight attendants, pilots and others who belong to other unions to
dissolve into the IAM at this time?  Would the administrative
unification of airline workers really advance the fight against
takebacks today?  It seems to me that the progressive thrust toward
unification of all airline workers into the IAM ended a long time ago,
that we do not know what the organizational form of united resistance
of airline workers in the coming battles is going to be, and that
demands that all airline workers join or stick with the IAM, rather
than trying out other unions,  may have no class-struggle significance
at this time.

The article makes no mention of the contract that AMFA mechanics
obtained at Northwest after winning the representation vote there.
How did that contract compare to the ones being negotiated by the IAM?
Did the mechanics have an easier or more difficult time in organizing
the fight against the bosses? How do other workers at Northwest feel
about the mechanics leaving the IAM?

Generalities about the programmatic character of AMFA do not answer
the question of whether, under present circumstances, the vote at
United helped or hurt the fight of workers there.  As anyone who reads
these comments will suspect, I am inclined to think that the vote for
AMFA was part of the resistance of airline workers (not just
mechanics) to the takebacks, and not primarily an expression of
retreat, demoralization, and craft prejudice.

But the question is concrete and I hope people who are part of this
experience will come forward with their views and information. I will
be glad to forward the most interesting ones to this and other lists.

Fred Feldman

Vol. 67/No. 28           August 18, 2003

won vote at United

CHICAGO‹By a vote of 5,234 to 2,997, mechanics at United Airlines
chose the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA) rather than
the International Association of Machinists (IAM), which had
represented them since the 1940s.

The results of the ballot were announced July 14, two months after the
company imposed pay cuts. For months leading up to the recent union
election, United Airlines management demanded and won massive
concessions from unionized workers. The company used its December 2002
bankruptcy filing to threaten workers with a court-imposed contract
with even greater concessions than the company demanded. The pilots
union officialdom was the first to push for accepting pay cuts of 30
percent and other takebacks. The IAM leadership followed suit,
speaking at union meetings across the country in favor of taking
concessions as the only way to supposedly save jobs and the airline.

In late April, the mechanics accepted a concession contract that
extends to 2009. Included in this deal are 13 percent wage cuts, new
work rules, and the contracting out of all heavy maintenance work on
United¹s fleets, which IAM officials had opposed in the past. These
takebacks are widely seen as having contributed to the already
existing dissatisfaction with the IAM officialdom and fueled the vote
for AMFA.

Prior to the mechanics¹ vote at United, AMFA represented 11,000
workers, mainly mechanics, at seven airlines, including Northwest¹s
7,617 mechanics, and those at Alaska and Southwest. With the addition
of mechanics and related workers at United, AMFA has now more than
doubled its membership.

Previously the most recent victory for AMFA came in January, when it
won a union representation election against the Teamsters at
Southwest, bringing another 1,700 mechanics into its fold. O.V.
Delle-Femine, head of AMFA, announced that the union is now moving to
represent mechanics at USAir and American Airlines.

In reporting AMFA¹s victory at United the big-business press‹from the
New York Times to the Chicago Tribune‹referred to AMFA as a more
³militant² and ³combative² union, which is a false assertion.

The AMFA tops put forward a craft-union orientation that says
³skilled² mechanics are better off bargaining separately from ramp
workers, reservations agents and others. AMFA¹s company-minded
officialdom organized these raiding operations to break off mechanics
from the IAM, which has traditionally organized mechanics in common
locals with ramp workers and other more poorly paid airline workers.
Some IAM members voted for recertification out of a desire for a
change from the officialdom¹s refusal to wage a fight to defend the
interests of union members. The bureaucracy of the Machinists has
sought to parry AMFA¹s challenge by adapting to its reactionary
orientation. In their unsuccessful effort in late 1998 to repel the
AMFA challenge at Northwest, for example, the IAM bureaucracy aped
AMFA¹s craft mentality by establishing a separate district for


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