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Should bad unions be decertified?

By Lee Sustar | July 18, 2003 | Page 11

SHOULD WORKERS vote to decertify lousy unions and replace them with better ones? The most important recent examples was the July 14 vote to get rid of the International Association of Machinists (IAM) by mechanics at United Airlines and a June 19 ballot that decertified the Teamsters as the bargaining agent for flight attendants at Northwest Airlines.

Decertification--a vote by workers to end a union's status as bargaining agent--is a favorite union-busting tactic of employers such as Cintas, the giant of the uniform supply industry. But pro-union workers themselves often have initiated successful "decerts" to get rid of corrupt or ineffective unions--in an effort to replace them with more democratic and militant labor organizations.

Certainly it's difficult to defend the record of the Teamsters at Northwest or the IAM at United. The IAM pushed concessions at United in 1994 in exchange for an employee stock ownership program and negotiated wage gains for the first time last year--only to accept demands for another wage cut this year amid the company's bankruptcy proceedings. At Northwest, Teamsters President James Hoffa repeatedly intervened in the flight attendants' Local 2000, a bastion of support for his rival, reformer Tom Leedham, ultimately taking direct control of the 11,000-member local by appointing a trustee.

The question remains, however, as to whether these decerts will do anything to help the workers at these companies in their struggle to stand up to the employers. The question is not new. In the early part of the 20th century, conservative officials in the craft unions of the old American Federation of Labor (AFL) held back the movement by accusing those who tried to organize the unorganized into industrial unions of "dual unionism."

"The Federation parceled out territories, real as well as imaginary, to the internationals, which became inviolate," wrote labor historian Irving Bernstein in The Turbulent Years, an outstanding account of the labor movement in the 1930s. "Thus, the International Association of Machinists possessed a chartered claim to all machinists, whether or not the union actually represented them or they worked in nonunion industries and might have preferred another union or none at all. In theory and in fact, exclusive jurisdiction was at war with the election of bargaining representatives and majority rule."

This approach set the stage for a split in the AFL--the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO)--and cleared the way for labor's giant step forward, with the organization of the skilled and unskilled into giant industry-wide unions in auto, steel and rubber. The experience of the CIO shows that the question of union jurisdiction and decerts can't be approached abstract criteria of labor unity, but must be judged from the standpoint of the needs of the struggle.

In other words, does a decert of one union and its replacement by another mobilize the rank and file to fight the employers--and build real solidarity across the labor movement? In the case of United and Northwest, the answer is no. At Northwest, the decert of Teamsters Local 2000 deprives the Teamster reform movement of one of its most energetic and successful groups of workers.

Nor does having a different union necessarily advance the struggle against the employers--as Northwest mechanics found out when they voted to decert the IAM several years ago. Their new union, the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA), has been unable to stop the job-killing pattern of outsourcing.

At United, mechanics who voted for AMFA have fractured labor solidarity at the airline, where the IAM also represents less-skilled ramp workers. Indeed, AMFA is a throwback to the craft unionism of the early IAM--with an elitist approach that seeks to use the bargaining power of skilled workers to get a better deal for them, while the unskilled are left to fend for themselves. AMFA's slogan "a union of professionals" makes its elitism all too clear.

The huge challenges facing organized labor won't be solved by representation votes for this or that union, but through struggle. Indeed, it was workers' demand for industrial unions in the 1930s that compelled a section of union leaders to support them--even at the cost of splitting the labor movement. Those battles remain the guideposts for the challenges we face today.

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