Independent Airline Unions:
a Rank and File Partnership for Democracy
By Jennifer Biddle
Labor Notes/May 2004
HAVE YOU EVER wondered what a New Unity Partnership might look like if the
rank and file built it? Wonder no more: the airline industry is witness to
just such a phenomena in grassroots campaigns to organize independent unions
amongst mechanics, flight attendants and most recently fleet service
On March 12 mechanics at American Airlines filed for a representational
election with the National Mediation Board in a contest that will pit the
Transport Workers Union (TWU), an AFL-CIO affiliate, and the Aircraft
Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA), an independent, against one another.
If AMFA wins the election, another 16,000 mechanics will join its ranks.
AMFA already represents 20,000 mechanics and related personnel at eight
other carriers, making it the main bargaining agent for these workers in the
³The addition of American Airline mechanics will continue to give AMFA the
momentum it needs to reach its goal of uniting all the mechanics in the
industry,² says Bob Owens, an American mechanic at JFK and an Associate
Member of AMFA.
Owens had been the elected Treasurer of TWU Local 562 until last year when
the International removed him and President Chuck Schalk from office - Schalk
for refusing to sign a loyalty oath and Owens for his public criticisms of
the International and the TWU contract.
AMFA has been on a roll since the economic bubble burst in 2000, putting
airline workers under tremendous pressure to give in to concessions by
employers and their own unions. AMFA won representation of Southwest and
United mechanics in 2003 and very likely will be the next union to represent
mechanics at American within the next few months. AMFA has organizing
campaigns going on at non-union Delta and IAM-represented US-Air, among
other, smaller carriers.
This development is far more than just a reaction against concessions. It
represents a desire by workers to build unions that promote real democracy.
³AMFA is structured to change when change is needed. This is democracy in
action, ³ says Ken MacTiernan, an American Airlines Crew Chief in San Diego
and an AMFA organizer.
In 2003, the independent Professional Flight Attendants Association (PFAA)
formed out of a trusteeship imposed on Teamsters Local 2000, a stronghold
for Teamsters for a Democratic Union and the reform efforts behind Ron
Also last year the independent Allied Ground Workers (AGW) began organizing
fleet service workers at US Airways and American Airlines in a bid to break
from the International Association of Machinists (IAM) and the TWU
respectively. In February this year, rank and file AGW supporters began a
campaign to decertify the IAM at United Airlines.
³Reforming existing unions is like going to a gunfight with a knife,² says
AGW Interim Director Tim Nelson. ³Myself and other AGW supporters exhausted
this avenue before the creation of the AGW. It is easier to replace the
entire union than it is to replace a union boss.²
A quick look at the constitutions of all three independent unions reveal
they all have open contract negotiations that rank and file workers can
participate in as observers; elected contract negotiators; elected local and
national officers all subject to instant recall; and a majority of dues
money that stays with the locals.
The AMFA Constitution goes the furthest in safeguarding the rights of
individual members. In part is says: ³No amendment to this Constitution or
to any Local Bylaws shall be proposed or adopted that would affect any
members in good standing by infringing upon their rights and powers; taking
away their right to hold office; taking away their right to select and elect
all officers, both National and Local; taking away their right to select and
elect all convention delegates; taking away their right to recall any
officers; taking away their right to approve and ratify all contracts and
letters of agreement; taking away their right to approve all AMFA strikes
and other AMFA recognized unions' legal picket lines (sympathy strike);
taking away their right to propose and submit changes to this Constitution
or any Local Bylaws.² Additionally, AMFA constitutional changes must be
approved by membership referendum.
The AGW Constitution has provisions against double dipping, salary caps
based on wages of workers, and language forbidding confidentiality
agreements with employers. Similar to the PFAA Constitution, the AGW
Constitution has a two-year waiting period before any local or national
officer is allowed to take a management position--or be subject to a union
fine of $10,000.
The PFAA Constitution states that its main purpose is to ³promote union
³If a union does not have a democratic constitution where the member has the
last word in union business then everything else is superfluous,² says O. V.
Delle Femine, the National Director of AMFA. ³The heart of the organization
must be the constitution where the members and officers must be held
It should be no surprise then that the union leaders behind the New Unity
Partnership list AMFA in their founding document as an ³external threat² to
their vision of a labor movement.
The real threat comes from within, from the rank and file--led by the
movement of mechanics to join AMFA--who have inspired one another to build
better unions, ones that hold leaders accountable to their members and ones
that aim to represent the best collective interests of those workers.
³I would hope that AMFA seeks out alliances with other unions - especially
democratic, accountable unions,² says Owens.
In the airline industry that appears to be exactly what is happening.
Jennifer Biddle is a furloughed aircraft mechanic from United who now works
for Alaska Airlines, both AMFA-represented carriers. For more information
about these unions: www.amfanatl.org, www.the-agw.org, www.pfaa.com.