NY Times' take on United mechanics' vote
ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Wed Jul 16 02:54:05 MDT 2003
July 15, 2003
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NYTimes.com > Business
Some see a vote by United Airlines mechanics to join a more combative
union as a sign of growing rebellion against concessions demanded by
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Airlines and Airplanes
Pensions and Retirement Plans
New York Times July 15
United Airlines May Face Deeper Challenges
[Subhead in print version:]
Mechanics vote to join more combative union
By EDWARD WONG
United Airlines mechanics have voted to oust the powerful machinists'
union in favor of being represented by a union that is smaller but
The monthlong representation vote, which was tallied by the National
Mediation Board yesterday, ended with 64 percent of voters favoring
the upstart union, the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, known
as AMFA. The vote greatly bolsters the new union's standing within the
ailing airline industry, where it has a reputation for resisting
concessions and is expanding its reach as managers are trying to wrest
deep givebacks from employees. Before the vote, the union represented
about 11,000 workers at seven airlines, including Northwest Airlines
and Southwest Airlines, where it took over representation from the
Teamsters in January. United, with about 6,800 active mechanics, is by
far its biggest coup.
Some labor experts said the takeover yesterday could spur unions in
other industries to become more combative in an effort to retain the
support of their members. The mechanics at United had been rebelling
against management's cutback demands, most spectacularly in a vote
last November in which they rejected crucial concessions. That
rejection could have contributed to the federal government's denial of
a $1.8 billion loan guarantee to United, pushing the airline to file
for bankruptcy protection in early December.
The ouster yesterday dealt a huge blow to the International
Association of Machinists, the union affiliated with the A.F.L.-C.I.O.
that represented United's mechanics and more than 100,000 airline
workers across the country. But the machinists' union will continue to
represent baggage handlers, security guards and reservations agents at
United. It said yesterday in a statement that the mechanics had
"decided to take a new direction for their future."
O. V. Delle-Femine, the national director for AMFA, said in a written
statement that "we look forward to developing a positive relationship
with United Airlines officials, one that will benefit both the company
and our new members."
The voting was done by phone, with 5,234 of 8,239 voters casting
ballots in favor of dropping the old union. Of the 13,144 eligible
voters, a significant 36 percent did not vote.
The mechanics and the other ground workers represented by the
machinists' union were the last United employees to agree to
concessions in bankruptcy court. They voted by April 30 to give
United, a unit of the UAL Corporation, $794 million a year in
That contract will not expire for six years, so United's struggle to
restructure in bankruptcy court should not be immediately affected by
the representation takeover, labor and industry experts said. The
machinists' union will keep its seat on the company's board, a United
Mr. Delle-Femine said in a telephone interview that he would let
AMFA's new members decide whether the union should take a seat on the
He added that union leaders were discussing whether to get someone on
the creditors' committee. The machinists have a representative on the
committee, largely because of United's huge pension obligations to its
members. In a recent bankruptcy court filing, a federal agency said
that if United's pension plan for its ground workers had to be
terminated, the deficit would amount to $1.9 billion as of mid-April.
United did not have much reaction to the takeover, except to say in a
written statement that it had always "respected our employees' right
to select their union representation."
Dissatisfaction with the machinists' union boiled over at a time when
the entire airline industry has been undergoing extreme
belt-tightening because of the devastating travel downturn. Labor
experts said the mechanics' vote was a cry of frustration at their
inability to grapple with forces that were steadily eating away at
their paychecks and job security.
"The machinists' union is extraordinarily good at corporate research,
at really understanding the intricacies of corporations' finances and
working at that level, really as equals with corporate leaders to
develop strategies," said Richard W. Hurd, a professor of labor
studies at Cornell University.
But "with all the economic turmoil in the airline industry," Mr. Hurd
added, "there's a lot of frustration among the members who don't
understand what's going on at the top levels. What they see is a
steady onslaught of requests for change and concessions. They're
extremely nostalgic for the days when the machinists' union could
deliver for their members."
AMFA had been trying for several years to take over representation at
United by saying that it would represent only mechanics and that it
would not allow management to impose concessions on workers. A related
union, the Professional Flight Attendants Association, took over
representation of flight attendants at Northwest late last month.
Several labor and industry experts said that given the current
downturn, it would be tough for AMFA to improve on the machinists'
negotiations with United. Though AMFA officials say they never allow
concessions, Northwest said it had eliminated 4,400 jobs from the
ranks of mechanics, cleaners and stock clerks since AMFA took over
representation from the machinists three years ago. There are now
5,900 workers represented by AMFA at Northwest.
"There will be a very close look at the pace of any outsourcing at
United," said Robert W. Mann, an industry consultant. "There was
criticism surrounding the amount of outsourcing that happened at
Northwest after AMFA took over."
Increased hiring of outside workers has been a big concern of
mechanics at United. Charlie Lincoln, a lead mechanic and shop steward
at United's maintenance base in San Francisco, said that "the members
have spoken, and now they'll get the representation they want."
"My opinion is that it won't be better," he added.
In defense of his union, Mr. Delle-Femine said that "all airlines do
Regardless of what happens in bargaining sessions, the takeover at
United could have ripples well beyond the airline industry.
"It represents a resurgence of militancy; it's a militancy born in the
crucible of the airlines' financial difficulties," said David L.
Gregory, a professor of labor law at St. John's University School of
Law. "What will be interesting will be to see the effect it has on
other industries. This might be a preview of things to come in the
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