CONTRACT NOW!: Machinists Union Members at Sister San Francisco Local Lodges 1781 and 1782 Member Appreciation Solidarity Day pose with Contract Now! signs. Talks with United Airlines have stalled over the issue of job security, according to union negotiators. In response, union members are renewing commitments to each other – and building a rock-solid front from which to face whatever challenges management tries to throw into the fray. Photos: Brian Vega, IAMAW 141 Communications Coordinator

“CONTRACT NOW” Wave of Union Solidarity Actions Around the Country as Contract Talks Stall

Organizing
25 July 2022

Brandishing signs reading “CONTRACT NOW,” thousands of Machinists Union members at United Airlines are storming break rooms, social media, and rallies to demand that United Airlines does not gain the ability to outsource their work to low-wage vendors in the next contract.

Workers along the West Coast gathered this week in San Francisco for a series of solidarity actions, including a member appreciation event that drew hundreds of union members. The gathering concluded a week that included rallies at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) that featured speeches by union leaders, including many directly involved in contract talks with the airline. 

“Cost of living is going up, health care is going up, everything is getting more expensive,” said Troy Rivera, an Assistant General Chairman with the Machinists, to the assembled United Airlines agents. “United thinks there are no big issues here,” he said. “And, that’s just not the case. We do have issues. Our job security is an issue – in fact, it was the number one concern that our members have asked for leading up to these negotiations.” 

“They are basically offering job security that is worse than what we have now,” said Assistant General Chairman Joe Bartz, a member of the panel of union members currently negotiating with the company. “And, that is absolutely ridiculous after what we’ve gone through over the last few years, with the pandemic.”

Bartz also took issue with the often disrespectful tone adopted by company negotiators, who, behind closed doors, seem to devalue the critical role front-line workers play at the airline. “In negotiations, members of the negotiating team told us that United Airlines Store Keepers (at United) were nothing more than Walmart stock clerks, and why should we pay them any more?” The comment drew loud boos from union members and prompted several to take to social media to point out that Walmart stock clerks are underpaid and regularly exploited. “If United wants to start acting like Walmart or Dollar General, we might be (expletive removed),” a poster on Facebook said in a comment that has since been deleted.

The rally at SFO Airport was only one of several such demonstrations. On Saturday, San Francisco-based union members launched a “Member Appreciation Day” event that drew several hundred airline workers. According to event organizers, the day was intended to strengthen the bonds between union members and their community. Organizers stressed that relationship-building exercises like membership appreciation events and community outreach could only help union members during contract negotiations. 

“This took a lot of work,” said event organizer Noelle Sakamoto. “There was a whole team of us that brought this together,” she said. The group involved Local Lodge Presidents from two Local Lodges, Tony Parker from 1781 and Wendy Goodell from Local 1782, both helped lead the work. The twice-a-month meetings began in January of 2022 and included help from Assistant General Chairs Olu Ajetomobi and Troy Rivera, both of whom represent airline workers along the West Coast. Chrisk Lusk, a District Vice-President and Local 1781 Committeeman also offered help and advice.

“They want us to trust them when they say they won’t outsource our work, and that’s just not good enough. We want it in black and white, in writing, in a legally-binding contract.”

-IAMAW District President, Mike Klemm

Area businesses invited to the event lined the parking lot of Locals 1781 and 1782 with a colorful assortment of booths, face painting, music, souvenirs, and food and drink options… all of which combined with the cool San Franciscan summer weather to create a festive atmosphere for attendees. 

But, behind the warm hugs and smiling joviality was a persistent undercurrent of steely determination, focused on the behavior of United Airlines at the negotiating table. 

In a July 18 letter to the membership, Machinists District President Mike Klemm, who is leading the negotiations, pointedly told members that talks had stalled over job security. 

“Unfortunately, United management decided to propose a job security package that is not competitive with United’s industry peers and does not provide the job security and scope of work protections IAM members deserve,” Klemm said in the statement. Of the solidarity events springing up at airports around the nation, Klemm said, “We need to take every opportunity to remind each other that we are all in this together and that we have each other’s backs.”

“They want us to trust them when they say that they will not outsource our work, and that’s just not good enough. We want it in black and white, in writing, in a legally-binding contract.”

 

The head of the Machinists Union Airline Transportation Division, Richard Johnsen, underscored the sentiments to West Coast union members over the weekend. “I want to thank everyone who put in so much hard work to create this solidarity event,” said Johnsen. “We need to do this. We need to be together and rock-solid if we’re going to take on this company and win,” he said. Johnsen called on United to, “return to the bargaining table and give Machinist Union Members a fair contract that protects our jobs and shows the respect that we deserve,” to loud cheers and chants of “Contract Now!”

One factor making United’s efforts so frustrating to employees is the fact that the airline has, as of July, returned to profitability. According to the Union’s District President, a large factor in bringing the carrier back into the black is the hard work of front-line union members. 

“United Airlines has announced record revenue and a return to profitability,” Klemm said in a joint statement signed by union negotiators.  “The very reason this is possible is because of United Airlines employees. Not management. It’s the workers who make this airline fly. It was us who made tens of thousands of calls to elected officials to ensure our airline received the needed aid to survive through the worst downturn in airline industry. It wasn’t because of CEO Kirby and the other airline industry executives. How did CEO Kirby reward our loyalty? He devised a scheme to violate our contracts and force all IAM-represented workers to part-time status. And, now this.” 

United’s announcement that it has returned to profitability owes its existence to the pandemic relief funding, which was awarded following a massive show of support from union members.

Another factor helping to inflate profits, according to industry analysts, is the fact that United is increasingly willing to raise ticket prices. This tactic mirrors the company ethic of bleeding its workers dry and seems to apply to passengers, too. Airfares at United have spiked a staggering 20% since 2019. At the same time, United has slashed seat capacity and used pandemic aid funding to encourage mass employee retirements, leading to crowded planes and chronic staffing shortages.

United earned more than $430 million in the Second Quarter but is struggling to keep pace with profits at competitor airlines, such as American. 

 

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