A Union Defeated at United Air Lines

Against the Current, No. 134, May/June 2008

Malik Miah and Terry O'Rourke

THE APRIL 1 certification of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) was no April Fool’s joke for the 8600 eligible mechanic and related United Airlines (UAL) employees who voted in the March 31 representational election. The Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA), which served the members for nearly five years under very difficult circumstances in the aviation industry, lost the vote by 4,113 to 2,631.

Many of us were surprised by the 75% participation of eligible voters (which included laid-off employees, some over six years) and the IBT’s three-to-two margin of victory. The IBT is known for corruption and a lack of internal democracy. Its leaders arrogantly stated that it supported secrecy in its dealing with UAL and called AMFA’s open negotiations with member observers a “circus.”

Many members, even supporters of the IBT in San Francisco, have praised AMFA’s communications. Their main charge was that AMFA did not have the resources to fight outsourcing and take on the company, pointing in particular to how AMFA failed to win the strike at Northwest Airlines in 2005-06. They also blamed AMFA for not defending the defined benefit pension plans lost during bankruptcy in 2005.

The IBT leadership, however, sold half-truths and distortions to convince mechanics to support their brand of corporate unionism, implying that the IBT’s 1.4 million members and resources alone would protect us now and during the upcoming 2009 contract negotiations.

AMFA, of course, rejected such claims based on long experience with the former union, the International Association of Machinists (IAM). We explained that a focused mechanics’ union is still our best protector and guarantor of our rights and interests. Why then did the membership side with the IBT? How did AMFA misjudge the members’ vote — and was the defeat inevitable?

An objective and sober look at what occurred and drawing on the lessons of AMFA’s five years at the helm is necessary to prepare for the future at United Airlines and the industry as a whole.

Why It Happened

The restructuring of the aviation industry during the last decade is ongoing. The current economic reality — $117 barrel of oil, outsourcing, stagnant wages, high health care costs — will lead to new demands by UAL and other carriers to undermine the wages and benefits of aircraft technicians and other aviation employees.

In this context, our members’ high turnout and their rejection of AMFA as the bargaining representative resulted from several factors. The first, in our view, is the context in which AMFA took over in 2003. AMFA operated in an environment of bankruptcy-imposed concessions just prior to winning certification. Soon after it suffered a second round of bankruptcy wage and work rule concessions, followed by more layoffs.

This environment triggered fear, anger and frustration within the ranks. Members felt overwhelmed by the forces arrayed against them: United Airlines, the corporate-biased bankruptcy law, the courts, and an anti-worker administration in Washington D.C. Many decided that we needed an equally powerful agent to counteract the corporate/government juggernaut. They willingly overlooked IBT’s anti-democratic operations and long history of corruption while they bought into the myth of the Teamsters as a big and powerful protector.

Bankruptcy and Concessions

UAL entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy on December 9, 2002. On January 10, 2003, the bankruptcy judge mandated a temporary wage reduction of 14%. On April 29, a six-year concessionary agreement was ratified with annual cuts of $340 million. By May the Indianapolis and Oakland maintenance bases were closed, leading to thousands of layoffs.

That was round one of the Chapter 11 process, just before AMFA came on board. A second round began in November 2004 resulting in more concessions in 2005. All five UAL pension plans were terminated, including the plan for mechanic and related employees. The pension blow was pre-arranged by UAL, imposed by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC), and signed off by the bankruptcy court.

UAL languished in bankruptcy for nearly 38 months — the longest in aviation history — finally exiting on February 1, 2006.

The IBT drive to replace AMFA began in 2006. The turmoil in the industry, however, put the issue of maintenance restructuring on the table. Would UAL sell the San Francisco Base? Would that division become a stand-alone Maintenance Repair and Overhaul (MRO) facility—separate from the main airline? AMFA still hadn’t negotiated its first full collective bargaining agreement.

AMFA’s Accomplishments

Nevertheless, AMFA’s four plus years as bargaining representative did produce tangible positive results.

* The union negotiated the best Maintenance Safety Awareness Program (MSAP) in the industry. This highly successful program fosters timely and accurate safety reporting due to its non-punitive guarantee to workers. It included establishing the Event Review Committee (ERC) made up of the company, FAA and union representatives. Members can now file reports after an accident/incident, and if accepted, not face discipline.

That Letter of Agreement (LOA) is very important to the Mechanic and Related class and craft. AMFA also established a strong safety coordinators’ program on the San Francisco Base and across the system.

* During the second round of bankruptcy give-back negotiations, AMFA won new job projection language for technicians at the Base and Line stations. Although AMFA’s proposals were initially rejected by UAL as out of order because these were not “normal” Section 6 negotiations when the contract becomes amendable, the negotiators’ persistence led to these improvements.

* The union also won the right for an independent audit to measure the company’s compliance with a contractual outsourcing limit. The union broke new ground with this language; no union within any industry had ever been able to stem the outsourcing tide.

The first two audits (2005 and 2006) revealed that UAL owes the members at least $480 million. AMFA expected, after winning the case currently in arbitration, to get all laid-off employees back to work when outsourced work was brought back in-house.

* AMFA also held more arbitration hearings than the previous union — an average of 16-20 per year versus the previous union’s average of three or four.

Open vs. Secret Negotiations

During the bankruptcy process AMFA established the principle of open negotiations, where members could observe its leaders at the table. UAL at first hesitated at accepting this new way of doing business, but quickly adjusted.

The union showed that the “third person at the table” (the eyes and ears of the membership) materially changed the negotiation dynamic, keeping Company and union negotiators focused on the member impact of the issues before them.

AMFA’s leaders published the full and final language of the contract modifications (a new Letter of Agreement) for the membership to review before a ratification vote. The union rejected forcing members to vote based only on a term-sheet summary.

AMFA established, for the first time ever, the use of “Observer Notes.” These regular, at times daily reports were widely read on the shop and hangar floor. They were even read by management officials.

The open negotiations approach, rejected by other unions, shows the potential power of rank-and-file democracy and exposes the lie that secrecy is the best way to conduct union business. (Secrecy by definition means only the union and company negotiators know each others’ positions while dues-paying members are kept in the dark.)

AMFA used this open approach last year during negotiations to bring another group into the contract — the Maintenance Planning Analysts (MPAs). The MPA negotiations led to an agreement that the members ratified. The union also conducted initial discussions to add System Aircraft Maintenance Control (SAMC) workers under the agreement. These negotiations are not complete.

Most members, even those who did not agree with AMFA’s craft union philosophy, praised the “Negotiation Notes” and considered it an important change in negotiation strategy.

AMFA re-wrote the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) manual as well. We provided a solid program for our members.

The union won language (new LOAs) for “voluntary furloughs” and “station swaps” during periods of work reductions.

Our legislative initiatives in Washington, D.C. successfully extended the Allegheny-Mohawk Labor Protection Provisions into an omnibus spending bill signed by President Bush in December 2007. It gives workers added protections when airlines merge, an important benefit with airline mergers seemingly imminent.

Nevertheless these progressive actions of union democracy were not enough to convince the members to keep AMFA as the bargaining representative.  We failed to first address the fear, anger, and frustration of the members and moved too quickly to the more cerebral yet pragmatic positions. Without first recognizing and addressing this emotional reality, large segments of the membership would not listen to AMFA’s reasoned arguments.

The IBT myth of the large and powerful protector squarely answered this emotional need. Once that need was met, many did not bother to critically examine the IBT’s proposed practical solutions to our problems.

Leadership Weaknesses

There were other factors behind AMFA’s defeat. AMFA’s full transparent methods made visible some of the leadership’s weaknesses. These “warts” gave opponents of craft unionism and AMFA the ammo to undermine our representation.

The IBT was able to twist the facts around the Northwest Airlines (NWA) strike of 2005, for example. Many members incorrectly blamed AMFA for not winning the strike. The challenge was huge and the forces arrayed against the strike were great.

The NWA management had decided to gut the contract and fire over half the represented employees, including all plant maintenance mechanics and cleaners. The licensed aircraft technicians, however, rejected this divide-and-rule tactic and stood in solidarity with their fellow employees. NWA management prepared for and pushed AMFA into a strike.

AMFA alone fought the battle while the unions on the property gave verbal solidarity but did not honor the picket line. When NWA filed for Chapter 11 in the fall of 2005, the court imposed draconian concessions on those unions. Still they refused to back the AMFA strikers.

Because AMFA is an independent union not affiliated with the AFL-CIO or the Change to Win coalition (IBT is a member), the active solidarity was lacking. Many of the IBT leaders flew on NWA flights during the strike.

The employer’s union-busting moves and the failure of support by all the other unions on the property and in the industry to stand with AMFA led to AMFA’s defeat and a defeat for all aviation workers.

Unfortunately, this setback for labor was used by IBT organizers at United to blast AMFA. All our negotiations sessions at NWA were available on the website. We had nothing to hide. Criticism informed by hindsight was made, while the fact that AMFA had won an industry-leading contract at NWA a few years earlier was never mentioned. Instead, the IBT pointed to real internal AMFA debates while the IBT hid behind its usual secret negotiations!

AMFA’s national leadership does have open debates about how to move the union forward in these difficult times. Because of our transparency, including the ability to recall officers easily, these debates were visible to the rank and file. While that type of democracy shows the messy reality of democratic functioning, others could and did imply it showed a weak and inexperienced organization. (There are real problems within AMFA’s leadership but democracy isn’t the main one.)

Unions that practice bureaucratic/corporate unionism, of course, simply can hide their flaws and undemocratic actions from the membership. You only learn the truth when it is too late to stop secret deals with management.

The Pension Promise

The distortion of facts concerning the pension issue was another factor that swayed members. AMFA factually answered members’ pension questions but many members bought into broad-brushed IBT promises because this fed into their hope that something could right the injustice of losing their pension.

The IBT declared that it could secure a great defined benefit pension plan for UAL workers. The fact that UAL must agree first and the members must approve it was presented with a sleight of hand. Promising something for nothing won them votes.

The IBT made promises to cleaners and others on furlough that their jobs would return if the IBT won the election. The IBT successfully tapped the fears and hopes of these members too.

The defeat of AMFA hinged on two additional factors. First, the massive resources of the IBT allowed them to knock on the door of every furloughed employee’s home — not one time, but in many cases more than a dozen times. While historically few furlough employees never voted in a representation election, it is clear that over 50% did in this election. (This can be calculated easily by assuming 80-90% of the 5600 active employees voted and the furloughed employees made up the remainder of the 6700 participants.)

IBT organizers effectively used face-to-face contact to great advantage; this was possible due to their vast resources.  AMFA strongly thought such home visits would backfire. In truth, as everyone knows from local political elections, if someone visits you repeatedly at home, eventually many people will start talking to the door knocker.  AMFA did send out mailings and organized some phone calls. But the face-to-face time utilized by the IBT clearly worked.

Second, most active employees have worked under concessions or recently returned from furlough in the last year. We suffered from concession fatigue and sought a “savior” union. The concept of the “security blanket” of a much bigger union is not new. A much larger International Association of Machinists (IAM) could not protect us from massive wage and benefit cuts in 2003.

But 38 months of bankruptcy protection and an industry that recently saw four more airlines go out of business, open talk of selling the San Francisco Maintenance Base, and merger with Continental or another carrier, led most employees to seek a “stronger” union even if that move is based more on unreasoned hope than reality.

Although AMFA effectively exposed the history of corruption in the IBT, the problems of the Western Conference of Teamsters Pension Trust, and why openness is better than secrecy, active and laid-off members came to the conclusion, “You need corruption to fight corporate crooks. Let’s have IBT protection and see if it works as Hoffa promised.”

Was it Inevitable?

None of these factors individually would have led active and furloughed employees to vote in the IBT. It was the combination of these objective and subjective factors that made the IBT’s win possible. AMFA answered the issues factually but failed to address the fears and wishful expectations as the IBT did.

Yet was it inevitable that AMFA would lose?

We don’t believe so. But the road before us was difficult. The fact that AMFA won in 2003 against another very large union during difficult times proved a small craft oriented union can win. We had even fewer resources to tap in 2003 than we did in 2008.

The problem today, however, was that AMFA was saddled with the responsibility of any incumbent. The IBT was the challenger. It could say anything, and it did, without too much worry or proof.

One AMFA local leader told Aviation Week on April 1 what happened and what to anticipate under the IBT: “In explaining his union’s defeat, Joseph Prisco, president of AMFA Local #9, which represents United and Alaska Airlines mechanics in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Hawaii and Alaska, said ‘United mechanics bought into the rhetoric about being large and having lots of money to fight management.’”

“‘The mechanics decided to take a different path, so we’ll have to see what happens,’ Prisco said. ‘The Teamsters aren’t very informed about MRO [Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul facilities] and what the changes have been for the last 20 years. Their basic position is all work should be done at the airlines. Well, that ain’t going to happen. That argument should have been made 20 years ago, when the outsourcing trend was starting’, he said.”

The IBT won the election through a membership vote. As supporters of democratic unionism we accept that fact. While we believe it is not a step forward, it is now up to the IBT to show the mechanic and related employees whether it can deliver on its many promises.

UAL CEO Glenn Tilton for sure will not change company goals and objectives because of a change in union representation. It will take a smart, determined union leadership backed by an informed membership to take on new company and industry restructuring, and meet the new challenges we all face.

Those of us who led and supported AMFA will stay active. We will work with and press the IBT to defend the interests of the mechanics and related employees. At the same time, if the IBT’s tough rhetoric produces few results, we will push back. We believe that the democratic traditions and policies of AMFA remain the best hope for our class and craft.

ATC 134, May-June 2008