BY MARK SEVERS
SEATTLE - On March 29 the National Mediation Board announced that the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA) had won the election to represent approximately 1,000 aircraft mechanics and cleaners at Alaska Airlines. The vote totals were 496 for AMFA and 225 for the International Association of Machinists (IAM). The IAM had previously represented these workers. Ramp workers and customer service employees are still represented by the Machinists union.
AMFA describes itself as "a craft-oriented independent aviation union.... not an industrial catch-all union like the Teamsters, TWU [Transportation Workers Union], [or] the IAM." AMFA, which says 98 percent of its members are mechanics and 2 percent are cleaners, argues that it is impossible to successfully negotiate contracts that include workers who perform different jobs for the same airlines without mechanics sacrificing their wage gains to other workers.
The representation vote took place in the context of ongoing contract negotiations between the IAM and Alaska bosses. The mechanics and cleaners will continue to work under the terms of the IAM contract until a new one is negotiated with AMFA.
AMFA had tried unsuccessfully on two previous occasions to organize workers at Alaska Airlines. The latest attempt to replace the Machinists began about eight months ago when some mechanics approached the Teamsters union shortly after the strike victory at United Parcel Service. Teamsters officials said they would not become involved in an election that would replace the IAM because all AFL-CIO affiliates have an agreement not to "raid" organized workplaces. Many mechanics who backed AMFA pointed to a lack of communication from IAM officials and a backlog of more than 600 grievances - some up to 10 years old - as reasons for dissatisfaction with the IAM. A large number also believed they could secure better contract terms for themselves, separate from the ramp workers.
Willie Kask stated, "I voted for AMFA because I thought confidence in the IAM had eroded so much that we never would be able to get enough people into the union and organized to fight for a better contract." Alaska is an open shop, meaning workers are not required to join the union.
During this period, IAM supporters among mechanics and ramp workers have engaged in a lively debate over the need for solidarity among mechanics, cleaners, and ramp workers. Don Gibson, a mechanic at Alaska stated, "I believe unionism is about unity. The workforce goes as one against corporate greed and to share in the corporate wealth they refuse to share. Some AMFA supporters explained to me that mechanics deserve all the raises and ramp workers deserve none. I believe this type of thinking is what started union busting in the 1980s."
The Machinists officialdom at first discounted the seriousness of the AMFA challenge and ignored offers from IAM members to campaign among the rank and file to meet this threat. Eleventh-hour visits by a number of district and international officials had little effect.
IAM officials informed all workers three days before the ballots were mailed out that they had petitioned the National Mediation Board (NMB) to include the cleaners in the election. The NMB approved this petition over AMFA's objections. The 205 cleaners at Alaska are now represented by AMFA.
There has been a lot of discussion among IAM members assessing this development. Many felt the way ramp worker and IAM member Dale Bartley did when he stated, "The only one who won in this election was the company. AMFA did great harm not only to themselves but also to the ramp service agents and cleaners. They split and reduced our ranks and lessened our bargaining power in the middle of the contract talks."
Mark Severs is a member of IAM Local Lodge 2202 at
Alaska Airlines. Guy Blue, also a mechanic at Alaska,
contributed to this article.
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