Independent unions: the way forward for US labour

Malik Miah is an area representative for Local 9, the largest local of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, which has 4000 members, at the United Airlines maintenance base in San Francisco. He is editor of Local 9's bimonthly newsletter Way Points ( and a member of the editorial board of Links. Caroline Lund is a trustee and member of the executive board of United Auto Workers Local 2244, a local of 5000 members at the New United Motor Manufacturing plant in Fremont, California. She edits a plant newsletter, The Barking Dog (, and is a contributing editor of Links.


Proposal for new course

How the unions changed

Demoralised and defeated

The AMFA example

How AMFA is different

Some labour history

How to change consciousness

Reform activists in auto


Everybody—including the top officialdom of the AFL-CIO union federation—admits that US unions are in crisis. The percentage of workers in unions keeps going down. The AFL-CIO is not a significant factor in the political life of the country. The public image of unions is more and more tainted by their corruption, by their narrow vision of protecting the few against the many and by their identification with the interests of the employers and the Democratic Party. The union officialdom won't even support single payer health insurance or oppose the Iraq war out of fear of alienating the Democrats.

Beginning with Reagan's smashing of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers (PATCO) in 1981,1 we have seen hard-fought union battles face defeat—from the Hormel strike (1985-86), to the Phelps Dodge copper miners (1983-84), International Paper (1987-88), Greyhound bus drivers (1983), Eastern Airlines (1989), Staley food processing workers (1992-95), Caterpillar (1991-98), the Detroit newspapers (1995-97), up to the Accuride tire workers (1998-2002), Tyson Foods workers in Wisconsin (2003) and the Southern California supermarket workers (to name only a few). In most of these struggles, the fight was carried forward by rank-and-file activists and "road warriors", who were beaten back not only by the corporations but also by their own union officials.2

There have been bright spots, like the Pittston coal miners (1989), the United Parcel Service (UPS) strike (1997) and the Charleston (South Carolina) dockworkers. But these examples of effective struggle only go to highlight the opposite trend rather than indicating a new departure.

Most union structures today do not fight for workers' interests. It is not only a failure to win better wages. The leadership default also concerns the other two historic achievements of the union movement: affordable health care and guaranteed defined benefit pension plans. The latter are now on the employers' hit list, with the AFL-CIO impotent to respond.

The top officials do not seek to use labour's enormous potential power. They grandstand when faced with attacks and then turn around and blame the rank and file for setbacks and defeats.

They have no effective strategy. Instead they seek "partnership" with management. They try to help their members' employers become "more competitive". They help the corporations win wage and benefit concessions from workers in the name of "competitiveness." They are in the pocket of the Democratic Party and spend a big portion of members' dues to back big-business politicians. They are dues-collection apparatuses.

Like many labour activists, the authors of this article have dealt with the problem of the unions for many years—organising strike solidarity, trying various tactics in our own unions, participating in reform caucuses, reading and discussing on email lists. We will first state the conclusions we have come to, then our reasoning.3

Proposal for new course

The way forward for labour in today's global economy is building independent unions. The long-term objective for activists, reformers and militants is to establish unions that can create a new labour federation.

The AFL-CIO is no longer viable as a unifying federation that can effectively advance the interests of labour in today's political and economic reality. It can not be reformed to lead working people in standing up to the employing class. While some affiliates remain vigilant and militant, such as the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) on the west coast, most do not. It is time to recognise this reality.

We need to start by telling the truth—educating workers to the fact that the existing AFL-CIO-affiliated unions cannot be rehabilitated. Workers can organise to decertify their AFL-CIO unions and vote in favour of an independent union, democratic and controlled from the bottom up. In cases where decertification and an independent union are not yet on the agenda, we need to continue working for reform, but with no illusions and always with an eye open to any opportunity to break out of the AFL-CIO framework toward new, democratic unions.

How the unions changed

What has caused this decadeslong rout of the unions? How has their nature changed from worker-controlled to pro-company institutions?

A number of factors have built up to a cumulative effect. During the 1950s anti-communist witchhunt, conservative CIO leaders joined in the redbaiting of the socialist left who had led the industrial union organising of the 1930s. Militants were systematically purged from the unions.

Meanwhile the corporations, flush with profits, were able to grant regular wage increases following their postWorld War ii expansion. This helped entrench the union bureaucracies, which were able to win gains without much leadership in struggle. There were strikes at times—some very militant—but they rarely involved union busting or scabs permanently replacing the striking workers.

This situation ended with the US defeat in the Vietnam War, the energy problems of the 1970s and greater competition from European and Japanese capitalists. Advances in technology also mandated fundamental changes in old manufacturing industries such as steel. The new "mini-mills" caught both the Big Steel companies and unions, particularly the United Steelworkers of America (USWA), off guard and unprepared. The new non-union competitors could produce steel more cheaply and efficiently than the old integrated big mills. The union failed to understand this and opted for "employee ownership" schemes and other tricks to save jobs. All failed. This marked a big defeat for labour.

The smashing of PATCO, however, signalled a new period of big business resisting concessions to labour and determination to break any strikes by the use of replacement workers and violence. The anti-labour ideological offensive went full blast. Two decades later workers are still reeling.

Demoralised and defeated

During the past decade of accelerated "globalisation", the capitalist system has got a second breath as vast areas of the world economy have opened up to corporate exploitation following the collapse of the USSR and the inroads of capitalism into Eastern Europe, Russia and China.

As the corporate elites have felt wind in their sails, the working class has become demoralised by the decades of defeats of the unions. US unions have never been violently smashed, but have been little by little incorporated into the system of big business. After the labour upheavals of the 1930s, labour activists and socialists discussed the process of the union bureaucracies being integrated into the capitalist state and becoming a tool of Wall Street's foreign policy.4 "The trade unions of our time can either serve as secondary instruments of imperialist capitalism for the subordination and disciplining of workers and for obstructing the revolution, or, on the contrary, the trade unions can become the instruments of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat."—"Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay", by Leon Trotsky, August 1940.

Union structures have become finely honed to keep the rank and file down, suppress any militancy and frustrate democratic change. Their activities and practices are geared to reward loyal hand-raisers with perks, to portray concessions as victories and to crush any opposition by any means necessary. The erosion of union power, the weighty corruption and hypocrisy have resulted in a working class that feels powerless. Head-on violence by the corporations has not been necessary.

Corporate globalisation has heightened competition among labouring people worldwide. The low wages of immigrant workers, as well as of workers in China, India and other Third World countries, are now an immediate threat to the living standards of US labour, as the corporations threaten to shut down and move plants if unions don't give concessions. The ineffective answer of the labour officialdom is to demand protection for us corporations, a logical extension of their wish for "partnership" with capital. Thus, the progressive battle against outsourcing and offshoring is turned into a campaign against non-union domestic and foreign workers. Solidarity is thrown to the winds.

Despite these difficult conditions, however, labour's potential power remains. Honesty about our unions, unity in mass action and international solidarity are the road to unleashing that unused power.

Attempts by the labour bureaucrats to address the crisis of the unions (for them it primarily means loss of duespaying members) have gone nowhere. AFL-CIO president John Sweeney's "New Voice" team has not turned around labour's decline. Despite spending huge sums on organising, unionised workers are only 12.8 per cent of the work force (only 8 per cent in the private sector). When Sweeney was elected in 1995, union density was 14.9 per cent.

The "New Unity Partnership" led by the Service Employees International Union [SEIU] proposes only administrative reorganisation, supposedly to give the labour bureaucracy more leverage. Passing slogans for change put forward by various union intellectuals ("the organising model", "social unionism model", "street heat") have not brought results.

Attempts by the left to address the crisis have also foundered because they have all accepted the framework of the AFL-CIO. Some have become so fixated on the crimes of the bureaucracy that they can't conceive of any role other than being critics on the sidelines. Others on the left have come to accept the current relationship of forces in the unions as unchangeable, and limit their role to supporting anything positive the officials do, such as strike support.

Vibrant reform caucuses and networks of honest activists exist in many unions, attempting to move the cause of labour forward. But their vision is selflimited to the extent that they refuse to admit the possibility of going beyond the current union structure.

Many reformers agree that the unions are corrupt and procompany, but believe we must stay inside and fight. They argue that to give up on reform is to play into the hands of the officials. Their mistake is to fall for the illusion that the institutional corruption that permeates the AFL-CIO can be rooted out from within.

Bureaucratic union rule encourages passivity among the membership, who know they are on their own. Members tend to be fatalistic—willing to accept concessions and policies that set back their interests because they think nothing better is possible given the relationship of forces. But once an alternative is offered, workers are ready to bolt and root out the rotting incumbent structure.

The AMFA example

This is what happened at United Airlines on July 13, 2003, when mechanics and related workers threw out the International Association of Machinists (IAM) in favour of the upstart Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA). The victory by AMFA came against great odds. Not only the IAM officialdom but also the entire AFL-CIO apparatus jumped in to try to defeat the workers' decertification campaign.

In the San Francisco Bay area, leaders of the Central Labour Councils and self-proclaimed reformers called AMFA supporters "scabs", "splitters" and "raiders", among other smears. But the membership at United had had enough. The final vote was two to one for AMFA.

Some reformers point to the decade of concessions, the post-September 11 reality and United's filing for bankruptcy (in December 2002) as the reasons why the IAM was defeated. In truth, the accumulation of false policies and betrayals finally brought on the revolt.

The turning point occurred in 1994, when the IAM leadership joined with officials of the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA) to put forward the Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) to "save" the company by "buying" it. The ESOP took the idea of "partnership" or "jointness" with management to a qualitatively higher level. It disarmed the workers by leading them to believe that becoming "owners" of the airline would protect their interests. Top IAM officials proclaimed that when we retired we would all be millionaires!

The ESOP meant worker solidarity was trashed. Employees were encouraged to rat on fellow union members and attack co-workers for working too slowly and thereby hurting profits. Company officials were featured at union meetings and in the union publication. Huge concessions were made to "help our company".

The catastrophic results of the ESOP policy were the main reason workers turned to a new mechanics' union. Since winning, AMFA has continued to increase its support on the shop and hangar floor, as many former IAM shop stewards and rank-and-file leaders join AMFA.

How AMFA is different

AMFA is a craft-based union of technicians and related classifications as defined by the National Mediation Board, a regulatory body set up under the Railway Labour Act.5 AMFA's aim is to organise all technicians in the industry into one mechanics union with common and ultimately portable contracts. Today AMFA represents more mechanics than any AFL-CIO affiliate in the industry: more than 18,000 active members in eight airline companies. It is the fastest growing union in the industry. It represents more mechanics than all other unions combined.

AMFA, however, is not affiliated to the AFL-CIO. The "House of Labour" is hostile to independent unions (whether craft or industrial).

AMFA advocates grassroots, democratic unionism built on accountability and transparency. It rejects the vertical, topdown structure that is the reality of most AFL-CIO unions. AMFA does not have an organising department because it bases its growth on volunteer organisers working on company property. It allows for easy recall of elected representatives who don't do their job.

AMFA does not conduct secret negotiations, but provides the rank and file with all the information they need to make educated choices. It fights against concessions, but above all believes union leaders must be honest about the realities and what is possible, refusing to call a concession a victory. AMFA supports all struggles by other unions, including honouring their picket lines.

AMFA does not endorse candidates or political parties. It promotes the unity of all workers, whatever their political views, in order to defend its members against the corporations and government institutions.

While there are good activists who support the two-party system, neither George W. Bush's Republicans nor John Kerry's Democrats represent the best interests of labour. Unionists need to push firmly our own issues in the halls of Congress, the courts and the executive branch of government. Issues from health care, to free trade, to flight safety can unite members who back different political parties and ideologies. Building a united front of all unions and workers, whatever their party affiliations, is the most effective way to bring about positive change.

Critics of AMFA have accused it of old-style craft unionism in the sense of promoting an elite of skilled workers. This is a demagogic argument. The real issue is democratic unionism, not craft versus industrial unionism. These same critics make no criticism of the other craft unions in the AFL-CIO, such as the pilots, flight attendants, nurses, carpenters, electricians etc. And there is no serious difference between craft and industrial unions affiliated to the AFL-CIO. They are all bureaucratic and undemocratic.

Modern craft unionism is not the same as it was in the period of the rise of industrial unionism in the 1930s. Craft unionism is effective for many skilled workers today. Skilled labour is facing heavy attacks. Offshoring and outsourcing have impacted these workers disproportionately. In the airline industry, technicians/mechanics have become more militant because of these frontal attacks and the failure of union officials to respond.

Some labour history

The first unions in the 1700s and 1800s were craft unions, formed in the era prior to the industrial revolution and the formation of large factories.6 The factory system led to large numbers of production workers, who ultimately sought union organisation. By that time, however, the traditional craft unions like the Machinists did not see production workers as "union material". These craft unions had become bureaucratised job trusts. They did not champion unionisation of production workers. They were (and are) narrow minded and did not see the problems of less skilled workers as their concern.

The rise of the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) in the 1930s marked a radical break (revolution) against these self-centred AFL unions. Reform was not possible. The production workers had no choice but to form their own unions for survival. Only the left wing of the AFL unions supported these organising efforts. The industrial unions that came on the scene during the labour upsurge in the 1930s were less conservative than the craft unions because of their origin in struggle.7

After World War II, however, the CIO leaders who backed the war effort moved to the right and became bureaucratised. They became more like their former opponents in the AFL crafts. Thus, the merger of the AFL and CIO in 1955 was not a surprise; it was inevitable. It no longer mattered that some unions originated in the AFL or the CIO. The lack of accountability and the undemocratic structures that dominated the AFL unions now permeated the CIO unions as well.

How to change consciousness

The airlines have gone through two decades of restructuring and reorganisation without the traditional unions standing up for the workers. This has led to a work force that is, for the most part, depoliticised and demobilised. Changing consciousness is not simple. It takes small gains combined with learning the lessons of past failures. AMFA seeks to maintain its link to the membership by open communication and keeping in check all elected representatives.

Mechanics are not the only airline employees setting an example of what may be possible for workers. Flight attendants and pilots have broken from AFL-CIO affiliates. There are rumblings among ground workers.

At Northwest Airlines, the reform-minded Teamsters for a Democratic Union unfortunately opposed the decision of flight attendants to disaffiliate from the Teamsters and set up their own independent union. But it is really up to the workers themselves to make that call. Sometimes the only way to build viable democratic unions is to break up and split apart the old apparatuses.

Those who left the IAM to support AMFA were not "splitting" or "dividing" workers; they were uniting mechanics under one union preparing to fight. The AFL-CIO is so bankrupt that it does not even respect the overwhelming vote of workers who want an independent union. AMFA has proposed a powerful united front of all airline unions, but the AFL-CIO unions at United have refused.

O.V. Delle Femine, the longtime national director and principal founder of AMFA, explains, "Patience is our greatest virtue". Along with patience, he adds, accountability and communication are essential to building democratic unions.

Delle Femine has spent his entire life fighting to create AMFA, beginning as a mechanic at American Airlines, which was then represented by the Transit Workers Union. Through his conflicts with the TWU leadership, he concluded that craft unionism was the best way to defend the jobs and interests of highly skilled mechanics. In his nearly 40-year career, he has made great sacrifices, going to hangar after hangar, suitcase in hand, to spread the word of democratic unionism against smears and even threats.

If AMFA continues to live up to its principles, it can point the way forward. Its victories over AFL-CIO affiliates at Alaska Airlines (1998), Northwest (1998), Southwest (2003) and United (2003) are not accidents. The rise of independent unionism in the airline industry is a reflection of the decline of the traditional unions and the desire of workers for a radical change in leadership and policy.8

There are other modest examples of decertification drives. Flight attendants at United Airlines, currently members of the Association of Flight Attendants/Communications Workers of America, are petitioning for a decertification vote in favour of the independent United Flight Attendants Union.

In August 2004, some 1600 janitors in San Francisco voted almost two to one to decertify the SEIU and join a new, independent union, United Service Workers for Democracy Local 87.

Reform activists in auto

In the United Auto Workers (UAW), a different situation exists from that in the airline industry. There is no non-AFL-CIO union such as AMFA vying for representation of autoworkers and other sectors organised by the UAW.

The UAW has the reputation of being one of the most progressive unions in the US. Yet its leaders openly argue that the role of unions should be to partner with corporations to "protect jobs" by getting workers to accept lower wages. The present organising strategy of the UAW is to convince employers to allow and encourage union organisation, by promising that the UAW will help put over wage concessions.

In reaction to these policies, there is a thriving network of dissidents and rebels in the UAW who are striving to resurrect true unionism. Plantfloor newsletters and web sites proliferate, such as "Live Bait & Ammo", "The Barking Dog", "Disgruntled Autoworker's Observations", "Shifting Gears", and "Nuts & Bolts".

UAW activists picketed their union's international headquarters, Solidarity House (more appropriately labelled "Sold Our Dignity House") in defence of 400 members at Accuride Corporation in Henderson, Kentucky, who were abandoned by the UAW in 2002 after a four-year strike/lockout because they refused to accept a unionbusting contract. Union militants have opposed insidious "two-tier" wage and benefit schemes, challenged undemocratic procedures and exposed secret and unaccountable joint company-union funds. Activists have also tried to help organising efforts by plant-floor volunteers at a Toyota plant.

While continuing the fight for reform of their union, many UAW activists have lost confidence that this is possible. One member, on an autoworker email list, raised the possibility of decertifying the UAW in favour of the Canadian Auto Workers (which split from the UAW in 1985 over concession bargaining). Some dissidents are following the progress of AMFA with interest.

Labour activists in all unions, nationally and perhaps internationally, need to take a new look at the possibility of decertification of moribund unions and the formation of new, democratic unions. The pressures and problems of big business attacks will be the same, but new unions will begin with a much smaller bureaucracy, more attuned to the rank and file. The members will have more space to move forward and develop new leaders.


1. The 12,500 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization(PATCO) went out on strike against the Federal Aviation Commission in 1981. After only two days, thenPresident Ronald Reagan fired all of them. Using plans that had been drawn up under the previous administration of Jimmy Carter, the government used military controllers as scabs, jailed PATCO officials, froze their strike fund and eventually decertified the union. The response of the AFL-CIO was to verbally oppose Reagan's attack on the union, while urging all affiliates not to honour PATCO's picket lines. Pilots and machinists were ordered by their unions to cross the lines. It is a common opinion among union members today that this capitulation to Reagan's union busting was the beginning of the end of real unionism in the US.

2. In 1985, Hormel meatpackers went out on strike in Austin, Minnesota, against company demands for a 23 per cent wage cut. They fought on for a year and a half, maintaining mass picket lines, organising nationwide union solidarity, and enduring hundreds of arrests of strikers and supporters. But the strikers (of Local P9, United Food and Commercial Workers) were to see their own union officials turn against them, along with the local and national AFL-CIO hierarchies. When a Democratic Party governor sent the National Guard against the strike, none of the AFL-CIO leaders criticised him. On National Public Radio, UFCW leader Lewie Anderson claimed that the Hormel workers were making too much money, making the company unprofitable and leading to a loss of jobs. In March 1986, the UFCW president ordered P9 to call off the strike and return to work unconditionally. When the members voted to continue the strike, Local P9 was placed in receivership, its elected leaders were removed and its office was taken over by the international union. The defeat of P9 was the forerunner to the lowering of wages and worsening of working conditions throughout the meatpacking industry. The other strikes mentioned had similar scenarios.

3. The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the authors. The Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association has no position on the AFL-CIO, positive or negative.

4. "There is one common feature in the development, or more correctly the degeneration, of modern trade union organizations throughout the world: it is their drawing closely to and growing together with the state power …

"Monopoly capitalism does not rest on competition and free private initiative but on centralized command. The capitalist clique at the head of mighty trusts, syndicates, banking consortiums, etc., view economic life from the very same heights as does state power; and they require at every step the collaboration of the latter. In their turn, the trade unions in the most important branches of industry find themselves deprived of the possibility of profiting by the competition among the different enterprises. They have to confront a centralized capitalist adversary, intimately bound up with state power. Hence flows the need of the trade unions—insofar as they remain on reformist positions, i.e., on positions of adapting themselves to private property—to adapt themselves to the capitalist state and to contend for its cooperation …

"The labour bureaucrats do their level best in words and deeds to demonstrate to the `democratic' state how reliable and indispensable they are in peacetime and especially in time of war …

5. The Railway Labor Act was adopted in 1926 to restrict the ability of rail workers to strike and take actions to defend their jobs and livelihood. It was later extended to the new airline industry. It is one of the most restrictive anti-labour laws in the United States.

6. One excellent history of the early days of the US labour movement is Philip S. Foner's 10-volume History of the Labour Movement in the United States, New York, International Publishers.

7. A good political history of this period is in Art Preis, Labor's Giant Step, New York, Pioneer Press.

8. For an overview of AMFA's philosophy and perspectives, read AMFA's national constitution on its website,