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Dangerous Poker Game at United Airlines
Source Carl Finamore, IAM/ATE 1781 (ret)
Date 09/03/08/15:47

Big Poker Game at United Airlines
By Carl Finamore, President, Air Transport Employees Local Lodge 1781, IAMAW

WITH OVER 100 MILLION workers left without union representation you would think organized labor would keep it eye on this huge target. After all, the unorganized represent a whopping 92% of the private workforce.

How can you miss this huge bulls-eye, just fire away and you're bound to hit something. Unless, of course, you're firing in the opposite direction.

The Teamster Union is doing just that; this great union has turned it eyes away from the 92% and is aiming at a small fraction of the 8%.

It's high-stakes poker at United Airlines (UAL) with 4500 mechanic jobs in the kitty. The powerful national union is sitting at the table with lots of cash eyeing the big prize of winning a Railway Labor Act (RLA) election to replace what is generally acknowledged to be an isolated, weak and ineffective Aircraft Mechanic Fraternal Association (AMFA).

It's a classic big-money 'hold 'em or fold 'em' challenge to a heavily-indebted and thoroughly-discredited organization that has few chips left to play. But unlike Las Vegas or Atlantic City where you can't win if you don't play, this is a game where everyone can loose and loose big.

That's why the Machinists (IAM) aren't playing this game; instead the IAM is cautioning against attempts to decertify AMFA despite a bitter history since their 1962 founding of AMFA undermining, raiding and hounding the IAM.

It's worth recalling that AMFA only won a 2003 election to represent UAL mechanics after two previous attempts to decertify the IAM failed in the 1990s. Even AMFA's eventual 2003 victory over the IAM was marred when approximately 5,000 of the 13,500 eligible employees failed to vote.

Regardless of how you voted or if you declined to vote at all, many employees were exhausted and demoralized by years of continuous AMFA-instigated infighting.

A large percentage of non-voters in RLA elections is not unusual because fourlouged employees eligible for recall are allowed to participate. Of course, these displaced workers are angry and frustrated; not the most likely to vote in an election for union representation at a job they were just kicked out.

It's an essential consideration in the IAM's decision to urge AMFA members to return to the IAM directly in an affiliation as an alternative to the Teamster strategy of organizing for a de-certification election.

According to RLA rules, if less than '50% plus one' return ballots from among 4500 active mechanics and around 4000 furloughed mechanics and permanently displaced cabin cleaners, then 'No Union' is declared the winner.

Thus, the Teamster strategy leaves UAL mechanics extremely vulnerable to the possibility that they will be without any representation just before 2009 UAL negotiations open.

The Teamsters are well aware of these dangers because they themselves were decertified from then US Air fleet service in the 1980s under similar circumstances. US Air ramp workers were left without a union and suffered pension loss and wage freezes until the IAM won a certification election some ten years later.

A July 10, 2007, letter from the IAM General Vice President Robert Roach, Jr. to all UAL mechanics described a recent meeting to discuss affiliation with AMFA national leaders in which "we did not set any preconditions or limitations, but instead asked your leaders to develop and propose whatever they felt would be the most beneficial to their membership. There was no pressure and the IAM hopes it will ultimately result in United Mechanic & Related employees returning to the Machinists Union."

"I urge you to contact your leadership because now is the time to have discussions with the IAM regarding an affiliation that would conclude with you voting on a proposal. This must begin quickly because your right to union representation is being threatened."

In fact, AMFA seriously explored this possibility, but the talks eventually bogged down.

While almost all AMFA leaders are willing to admit isolating mechanics from the larger more powerful AFL-CIO unions was a catastrophic blunder, there is still lots of resistance among UAL mechanics to admitting the closely-related error that it was a mistake to leave the IAM, still the largest union at UAL and in the airline industry.

As a result, AMFA explored affiliation with other unions in the AFL-CIO, but all turned AMFA back around to the IAM in the name of labor solidarity as codified in Article XX of the AFL-CIO constitution that forbids unions raiding each other.

No problem for the Teamsters, apparently. Since leaving the AFL-CIO they have also seemingly left behind this important and critical element of labor solidarity. Instead of endorsing AMFA's affiliation to their original IAM union with 20,000 other UAL members, the Teamsters risk eliminating all representation for mechanics.

Experienced poker players with deep pockets are accustomed to raising the ante as a bluff; perhaps the Teamsters are throwing lots of chips into the pot as a way to pressure AMFA leaders to fold, avoid an election and directly affiliate with them instead of the IAM.

Whatever their strategy, it is a game that can possibly go very wrong and end up with far worse results than already exist. It is a risk the Teamsters are willing to take while the IAM is not.

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