By CHARLES WALKER
If on March 5, the ranks of the Machinists Union (IAM) had voted down United Airlines’ second contract offer, the union’s officialdom would have been between a rock and a hard place, because the officialdom went all out to sell the airline’s offer.
Just three weeks earlier the ranks rejected a very similar proposed contract by 68 percent to 32 percent, and an 86 percent majority then voted to strike; so it wasn’t easily predictable how the vote would come out.
That 41 percent of the airline’s mechanics and utility workers still voted to reject the pact means that the union’s tops’ troubles are far from over, even as they “put the contract to bed.”
In large part that’s because an independent rival union, the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA), will challenge the Machinists union this year. The AMFA has a strong core of supporters who say that the AMFA is more militant and far more responsive to the ranks, because it’s also more democratic.
Despite the ranks’ acceptance of the new agreement, the pact provides for unspecified concessions, and that should improve the rival union’s chances of replacing the Machinists as the 13,000 mechanics’ and utility workers’ representative at the world’s second largest airline.
The agreement differs from the earlier offer in that it allows the workers to vote on United’s still unknown concessionary demands. But unless the workers can back up a rejection with the power of a strike-and they can’t-the change isn’t much of a change. Without the right to strike the workers are robbed of the power that would give them a real shot at turning down the concessions.
But that’s not the first swindle pulled on them with the help of the IAM officialdom. The ranks’ doubts and fears about the IAM officialdom have been growing at least since the 1994 concessionary agreement that reduced their wages and curbed their working conditions.
In return the workers got an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) that the officialdom and their lawyers should have known merely shifts financial risks to workers, while “simultaneously creating a captive class of shareholders, thereby keeping the company stock price artificially high and in friendly hands.” (Newsday, Feb. 7).
Actually, in United’s case the recessionary stock market slammed the stock price anyway, making a terrible concessionary trade-off by the union tops even worse for the membership.
The U.S. airline industry is going through one of its periodic declines. But over the years the industry has paid out billions of dollars in profits to Wall Street and millions more to its higher executives. United Airlines is no exception, as an IAM mechanic wrote in Labor Notes (Jan. 2001). Since 1994, he said, United had “18 straight record profitable quarters on top of a $4.3 billion ESOP-related tax credit.”
There was a time when trade unionists held that if a company couldn’t afford to pay its workers generally acceptable union level wages and benefits, the company shouldn’t be in business.
That attitude made a certain kind of sense, especially when applied to cockroachtype, sweatshop operations. But in the case of firms the size of United Airlines the answer is not to close them up, but to nationalize them under the democratic management of the workforce.
With a democratic nationalization workers would not shoulder the liabilities of the capitalistic economy with its inherent contractions following expansions to the extent they customarily do.
Such a move would be particularly fitting for United Airlines, which had record profits during the boom years, and stalled negotiations well past the onset of the present recession, when it cries poor mouth.
United says that it needs a billion dollars in concessions from all its employees in order to regain profitability. The alternative is bankruptcy, which under the bosses’ legal system would allow them to tear up its contracts with the firm’s pilots, flight attendants, ramp workers, and the mechanics.
The Machinists Union’s officers’ dilemma is to lead the ranks’ down a concessionary path and at the same time fight off the rival union, keeping its hand in the members’ pockets.