AMFA and the IAM (correction of my earlier article and response to Dave W.)

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Fri Aug 8 20:33:24 MDT 2003


   I want to make one important correction to the comment I wrote on
the Militant's coverage of the victory of the Aircraft Mechanics
Fraternal Association over the International Association of Machinists
at United Airlines.

   I said that the Northwest Airlines machinists also voted for the
AMFA over the IAM.  But the Northwest workers actually broke with the
Teamsters, whose record was very similar to IAM's.  Still, what
happened subsequently at Northwest -- the question of whether the rank
and file mechanics were hallucinating to believe they might be better
able to hold off concessions with AMFA than with the Teamsters or
IAM -- is quite relevant to what happened in the United election.

   David Walters criticizes the Militant for proclaiming the Eastern
strike as a victory, but I notice he does not characterize it as a
defeat for labor, which I knew a few comrades in the party were
inclined to do at the time. I hope this means he agrees with me that
it was not a defeat for the Eastern workers, the IAM and the labor
movement.  This is certainly not how those who fought to the end at
Eastern -- and their numbers weren't tiny -- saw it and they were not
wrong.

  Eastern Airlines set out to make a successful, a model, example of
union busting.  They workers refused to give in and the company ended
up going bust instead -- for reasons that included the workers' fight
but were not primarily caused by it.  The workers lost their jobs.
And they set a powerful example for the labor movement of refusing to
trade their rights and their dignity for their jobs and other workers,
despite the continuing retreat, were stronger than they have fought.

   Of course, it would have been better if there had been a labor
movement that could fight for keeping the airline open, preserving the
jobs, nationalizing the industry and so on, but that is the music of a
future labor movement, not the one that was fighting at Eastern. The
workers who fought at Eastern had no illusions that they were part of
that kind of labor movement, and many of them took the loss that came
as part of the package of a fight worth fighting.

 Frankly, I don't think our Cuban comrades would have any trouble
recognizing a fight like this as an important moral victory for the
labor movement, although not of course a direct material winning of
some of ours back from the employers.

   The Militant has long been prone to generic and sweeping cries of
"victory" for our side.  The "imperialists lost the cold war," "the
workers won the Eastern strike," imperialism broke its teeth in the
1991 gulf war, East Germany and the Soviet Unions are workers states
that emerged stronger from the collapse of the regimes, the workers
are at center stage, and so on.

  The Militant, by the way, is also occasionally prone to see defeat
where it has not taken place yet either.  Note the tendency to portray
the antiwar movement as going over to patriotic support for the war
against Iraq after it started, or the proclamation that the Vietnam
Syndrome has been conquered and that Washington now has an army it can
rely on confidently in a serious military conflict. None of these
questions have been settled decisively in reality.

  I think I felt pushed  for many years toward accepting some of the
upbeat exaggerations even as unassessed questions accumulated because
I was reluctant to accept the opposite.  I didn't think our class was
suffering wholesale defeat and catastrophe, and I still don't.  The
situation and the balance of class forces are much more complicated.

  Similarly, I think that some people are pushed toward proclaiming
defeat in ambiguous situations partly by repulsion from the Militant's
victory proclamations and failure to reassess them subsequently in the
light of events.  I think everyone needs to try to look at the world
and national situation with fresh, post-my-split-from-the-party eyes.

  Obviously, it would be an exaggeration to treat the split of the
United mechanics from the IAM as a pure and simple victory.  It is
partly the product of a lot of defeats and a situation that has been
basically unfavorable for quite a while.  The question is not whether
workers at United and the airline industry generally need unity across
all jurisdictional, craft, and other divisions -- and there is no
denying they are more vulnerable because they are far from this today,
with or without AMFA.

  But it is necessary to remember that the march toward this takes
place in fights by workers and is not governed by a "working class
unity" catechism and organizational rulebook. I suspect  -- although I
don't have enough information to feel confident --  that the AMFA
victories, insofar as they reflect workers determined to find an
organizational form in which they can fight, will prove to have been
an initial step in the right direction.
Fred Feldman






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