UAL mechanics face concessions after voting for increases

Three weeks after soundly rejecting a government-proposed contract by 68 to 32 percent, mechanics and utility workers at United Airlines approved a new contract March 5 with a 59 percent "yes" vote.

The turn-about came after the top union leadership (District 141-M of the International Association of Machinists) quickly endorsed the slightly tweaked version of the contract rejected on February 13. After promising management they would do so, the top officials started campaigning to get the pact approved even before the text was shown to members.

The new agreement gives veteran mechanics up to a 37 percent wage increase if fully implemented by 2005. The last contract “became amendable”-the airline industry’s version of expiration--July 2000. Base pay has been stuck at 1994 levels since employees made wage concessions in return for "majority ownership" of UAL through an ESOP.

District 141-M President Scotty Ford praised the new pact as "industry leading" and stressed "we are very happy with what we have achieved."

UAL CEO Jack Creighton agreed. He told employees and the news media afterwards that top management views the new contract as the first step toward convincing all United employees to give back wages and other benefits. It is part of "a foundation on which to build our strategic plan," he said. The company aims to convince the six unions to give back up to $1 billion in concessions. The IAM leaders have become partners in this drive.

The new contract is both "industry leading" and unprecedented. United agreed to wages it knows that it can legally demand to change, simply by proclaiming a threat of possible bankruptcy. No other union in the airline industry has ever signed a letter of agreement that agreed in advance to negotiate, "in good faith" or otherwise, for concessions.

The main reason a majority of mechanics opposed the original pact proposed by the Presidential Emergency Board (PEB), and don’t trust the IAM leadership, is that it contained a "linkage letter," inserted by the government after being negotiated by company officials and IAM leaders. That poison pill tied proposed wage increases and benefits to concessions UAL wanted to help return the company to profitability. How long the concessions would last was never spelled out. Amazingly, the new letter of agreement sticks to the basic provisions of the PEB’s language. It’s even worse, since it drops reference to “substantially all” other UAL employees joining the recovery plan along with the IAM.

The IAM letter simply says it will "bargain in good faith" for concessions if "during the first six months following date of signing" the company "proposes to implement a financial recovery plan to address the company’s severe financial condition or as a prudent alternative to a bankruptcy filing."

When asked on the IAM website why they agreed to keep the letter, knowing most employees opposed it, IAM officials replied simply: the company would not sign the contract without it. The company sees the letter as the legal basis to reopen and change the contract if the IAM doesn’t play ball on giving concessions.

The main reason the IAM leaders came out against the PEB’s pact a few days before the first vote was not because of the linkage letter or inadequate pensions and retroactive pay. The IAM International did not want the precedent of a government-imposed contract, which exposed their two-year failure to negotiate an agreement. By striking "PEB" from the cover and replacing it with "IAM," they avoided that stigma. It is now "their" contract.

The improvements include a little more retroactive pay, but still 40 percent less than workers are owed. It starts in December 2002 (conveniently after the "recovery plan" is to be launched) instead of March 2003, and continues for eight quarters. Some mechanics will receive more license pay. And there is a slight improvement in pension pay for mechanics, but not for lower-paid utility workers.

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The tweaking is so modest and cynical that it was a slap in the face for most mechanics. As one Chicago mechanic put it, the pact passed because the IAM leadership targeted the 18 percent of the yes voters it needed to reach 50 percent plus one.

The fact that members will now be able to vote on the concessions is not new either, as IAM officials claim. The PEB’s version contained this “right.” But that right is almost meaningless now, since we lost the right to strike by accepting the new contract. We can vote down concessions and the company and union leaders can come back and say that implementation of future increases depends on immediate concessions.

In addition, the company and IAM officials can jointly claim that if we refuse the immediate concessions--likely 10 percent or more--the engine shop or another facility will be sold off. It’s the classic method. It’s what the company and union officials used in 1985 when workers voted on a "B Scale" five-year progression and in 1994 when workers bought the employee-ownership scheme.

DESIRE TO FIGHT

The fact that 41 percent of mechanics voted "no" shows there is a desire to fight. Even those who voted "yes" did so feeling they couldn’t get any more from the IAM negotiators who echo management arguments.

Sentiments are running high on the floor that the fight is far from over. There is hope that the contract will be fully implemented without wage concessions and that the retroactive increases will be paid. There is fear that worse may come if the economy doesn’t turn around.

But there is a desire among most mechanics that the IAM must be replaced. Many workers are signing cards for the rival, more militant union, the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA), which aims to file for a decertification election later in the year. An election had been planned for last August, and only a decision by the National Mediation Board, which oversees airline bargaining, to add to the rolls over 2,000 employees who were not paying dues to District 141-M prevented that vote.

Other mechanics seeking to reform the IAM are beginning to organize against future concessions too.

ON BOARD WITH THE COMPANY

Meanwhile, the IAM and company executives have agreed to put a new IAM representative on the UAL board of directors. The current IAM rep, John Peterpaul, has been a willing tool of management. The elected head of IAM District 141, which represents some 23,000 ramp, stores, and customer service workers, will join the Board. That district’s contract is still pending and must be ratified before the "recovery plan" is put in place.

The CEO plans direct negotiations with the unions by late March. The pilots' union leadership is ready to grant concessions as long as their members get something real in return. Leaders of the flight attendants (the only employee group that didn’t participate in the ESOP nine years ago) so far say they won’t make any concessions.

The coming year will hopefully see an opportunity to re-establish a genuine fighting union for UAL’s mechanics and other workers.

Rich Lesnik and Malik Miah are mechanics in San Francisco and members of the local AMFA Organizing Committee.