Saturday, February 6, 2010

The AMFA Mistake

For more than 50 years, airline workers enjoyed a level of solidarity and support unmatched in the labor movement. Pilots, Flight Attendants and Ground Workers all shared the same goals: better wages, benefits and working conditions. We also had a common enemy – airline management.

Management spent decades trying to shake our solidarity, but was never successful. Although at times we had our differences, we were able to work them out and our solidarity produced positive results. Our solidarity could not be broken.

Consequently, airline employees received pay, pensions and benefits far greater than workers in other industries, both union and non-union.

In 1998, however, that solidarity was fractured. Lured by lies and fed by greed, some licensed aircraft mechanics decided to break away from all other airline workers.

First at Alaska Airlines and then Northwest Airlines, brother turned against brother, and what management couldn’t do, airline workers did to themselves. We went from a single group of Ground Workers to divisions by classification. The results have been disastrous.

The Raid

In the midst of IAM negotiations with Northwest Airlines in 1998, the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA) preached that licensed aircraft mechanics were elite professionals who would fare better if they negotiated on their own, without relying on “unskilled” workers. Their propaganda struck a chord with two groups – elitist Mechanics and Northwest management.

During the ensuing representation election between the IAM and AMFA, Northwest Airlines was required to remain neutral. The airline’s management, however, permitted AMFA to distribute hate literature and intimidate voters on company property while expelling IAM Representatives, in violation of National Mediation Board (NMB) election rules.

Northwest knew that AMFA was providing an opportunity to divide their employees and were eager to help crack the wall of solidarity.

AMFA promised the mechanics’ skill would be their strength, not numbers, and offered unprecedented democracy in a mechanics-only union. The NMB, however, forced AMFA to also accept unlicensed Mechanics, Cleaners and Custodians as part of the Mechanic & Related classification.

In reality, the democracy AMFA promised was a myth promoted by its founder and only National Director in the organization’s 40-year history, Olivio Vincenzo Delle-Femine. The association is controlled from the offices of Kevin McCormick, a New Hampshire-based real estate manager who bankrolled the raid and anointed himself AMFA’s non-elected, non-removable National Administrator.

The Machinists Union warned Northwest’s Mechanics that by isolating themselves from the IAM and the rest of labor they would become easy targets for management. Unfortunately, they did not heed the IAM’s warnings and the NMB certified AMFA as the collective bargaining representative for Northwest’s 10,000 Mechanics, Cleaners and Custodians on June 1, 1999.

Northwest Airlines got the divided workforce it yearned for, and they developed a two-stage, multi-year plan to take advantage of their new found luck.

First Contract

Job security and scope provisions are the bedrock foundation of any collective bargaining agreement. The contract AMFA inherited from the IAM prevented Northwest from farming out any maintenance work if a single member was furloughed. Wages and benefits are worthless if there aren’t any workers to earn them.

When AMFA assumed representation of Northwest’s Mechanics, Cleaners and Custodians (MCC), their membership numbers totaled nearly 10,000 and no members were on furlough. That amount of workers was far too large to replace in the event of a strike. Reducing the number of MCC members was the first step in Northwest’s plan.

AMFA’s untrained negotiators had misplaced priorities, and the airline took advantage of their inexperience. Northwest offered the Mechanics substantial wage increases in exchange for eliminating the IAM’s strong scope language. AMFA’s leadership and members were blinded by the dollar signs and failed to realize that when they signed that first contract and allowed the airline to subcontract work while furloughing members, they sealed their own demise.

In spite of AMFA’s claims that it negotiated “iron-clad” job security language, Northwest immediately began the systematic dismantling of its Mechanic & Related workforce. Engine and airframe overhaul work and scheduled maintenance checks were subcontracted to firms around the globe. Line maintenance Mechanics were replaced with vendors.

Furloughs quickly followed the signing of AMFA’s first agreement with a major airline.

Thousands of Northwest Mechanics, Cleaners and Custodians lost their jobs due to a contract AMFA negotiated in early 2001, before the industry downturn caused by 9-11 and before the surge in fuel prices.

Even at carriers where AMFA did not represent anyone their presence was felt. The Northwest contract became the envy of airline management throughout the industry. Soon, other carriers were demanding the same outsourcing flexibility AMFA conceded to Northwest.

By the summer of 2005, the 10,000 members AMFA inherited from the IAM had dwindled to 4,000. It took four years, but the mechanics were isolated by choice, weakened by ignorance and vulnerable by design.

Inevitable Strike

From the signing of the 2001 Northwest-AMFA agreement, the airline began preparing for an AMFA strike. Not because it felt AMFA was militant, but because they were predictable. Just as Northwest fooled AMFA into eliminating job security during their first negotiations, they would now either force a worthless contract on them or bust the union completely.

AMFA’s membership had dwindled to the point they now could be replaced. Additionally, AMFA allowed Northwest to develop relationships with dozen’s of vendors who were prepared and eager to increase their workload.

Northwest watched AMFA back itself into a corner with its “no concessions” mantra and then made their own contract demands, knowing they would be unacceptable to AMFA’s leadership. Either the membership would ultimately accept them, or there would be a strike the airline was eager to accept.

The AMFA proposal to Northwest requires that the IAM membership pay more than double the amount of concessions requested by the company. AMFA's position is that they should sacrifice less at the expense of IAM members.

AMFA was made aware prior to the strike that their position could not be endorsed by the IAM. The IAM attempted to enter into dialogue with the AMFA leadership before the strike, but they did not respond to our inquiries.

On August 20, 2005, at 12:01 AM EDT, Northwest’s 4-year campaign to break the association representing its Mechanics, Cleaner and Custodians was complete.

AMFA declared a strike without allowing its membership to vote on or even see the company’s last, best and final offer. AMFA, the “democratic alternative” to legitimate labor unions, refused to provide its membership the details until after the strike began and they had been replaced. That decision was made by a select few that included a real estate manager and not trained labor negotiators.

Regardless of the strike’s ultimate outcome, the Northwest’s MCC will never be the same. AMFA’s policy of isolation and philosophy of “strength in skill, not numbers” ensured their failure.

Lessons Learned

BusinessWeek once said, “Kevin McCormick has to be the oddest choice to run a labor union.” Not content with the elimination of Northwest’s Mechanics, Cleaners and Custodians, the mastermind behind their destruction continues his efforts to fragment airline workers and break solidarity, all for his personal gain. Firmly grasping an $800,000 a year contract with AMFA, he is not going to let the financial ruin of 10,000 families stop him.

From behind the desk of his New Hampshire real estate office, Kevin McCormick ensured that United Airlines’ Mechanics sacrificed more in their self-imposed isolation than any other employee group at the bankrupt carrier. He negotiated away job security language and permitted United to send aircraft maintenance work overseas, something the previous IAM contract prohibited.

Clearly, United has a strategy to deal with AMFA that is similar to Northwest’s.

McCormick is also pulling the strings of an AMFA-modeled group courting Continental Airlines Flight Attendants. That campaign began with the theft of the IAM's confidential, personal information of Flight Attendants and found its proponents facing a lawsuit for violations of federal and state statutes.

The same lies and promises McCormick made to Northwest Mechanics in 1998 have been resurrected at Continental. But the only winners in a McCormick-led election are airline management and McCormick himself.

The IAM warned Northwest’s Mechanics, but they were seduced by unrealistic promises and thousands of workers and their families have paid a dear price. History has shown, and recent events have confirmed, that the only way to combat airline management is through solidarity and ample resources, which is something independent unions cannot provide. With no support, no political contacts and no resources, AMFA had no weapons to use in their fight with Northwest.

The Machinists Union has our own two-stage, multi-year plan to restore the solidarity so many are working to destroy.

First, the IAM membership must reject all attempts to divide us, whether they come from management or independent unions. Anyone who tries to break our solidarity reduces our strength and does not have workers’ best interests in mind.

Second, we must renew and increase our commitment to organize all unorganized workers at airlines and airline service companies. Workers need strength to survive, and solidarity among all airline workers provides that strength.

AMFA has proven that isolation from the AFL-CIO and its member unions is fatal.
Anyone who doesn’t learn from the mistakes of Northwest’s Mechanics is doomed to the same fate.