by Robert G. Rodden

Organizing on the Airlines

Regularly scheduled airline flights began in the United States in 1926. But the industry did not reach its first million passenger year for at least a decade. Unionism was non-existent in the airline industry in the open shop '20's and remained weak well into the depressed '30's. The pilots were the first sizable group of airline employees to try seriously to organize. The Airline Pilots Association (ALPA) was a direct response to an industry-wide pay cut forced on all pilots in the spring of 1931.

Individual IAM members were fixing flying machines even before a couple bicycle mechanics named Wright got man's first heavier-than-air craft off the ground at Kitty Hawk. Fred Hewitt, editor of the Machinist Monthly Journal from 1915 to 1945, worked in the machine shop where Samuel P. Langley nearly perfected a flying machine as early as 1900. Langley failed but machinists were needed to repair planes from the time they were little more than flimsy motor-driven kites.

During the era of heart-stopping, barn-storming aerial circuses in the 1920's, journeymen machinists were among the few with the training and skills needed to keep the early prop planes flying. But they were too few and too scattered to form a nucleus for collective bargaining and with most other airline workers they remained unorganized for some years to come.

The first organizations of ground personnel emerged during the NRA years. Mostly locally based they usually were company-sponsored efforts to head off legitimate unions. Companies held out promises of pilot ratings and pie-in-the-sky to tempt mechanics to work for less than the going rate. But as commercialism replaced glamour and romance mechanics began to look for unions capable of enforcing demands for decent wages and fair treatment. Seeking to head off bona fide unionism carriers set up dummy "unions" headed by handpicked stooges. As reported by the Journal "the officers of the company-dominated unions had the free run of the system [and] . . . became the outlet for company-sponsored propaganda and messengers of management-inspired threats."

In fighting unions management resorted to both the carrot and the stick. One airline, the Journal reported, tried to instill company loyalty by issuing fancy shoulder patches to favored employees. Another passed out buttons honoring five or ten years' service. When the carrot failed the stick was applied. IAM organizers in Kansas City reported twelve employees were fired by TWA for union activity. In Chicago, seven were sacked by United because of union membership.

In February, 1933 Easter Airlines tried to chill unionism at the Atlanta Airport by firing several mechanics. While this did not stop the chartering of an IAM lodge it was too weak to survive a premature and unauthorized strike. The Executive Council did not sanction this strike but Grand Lodge paid victimization benefits to at least two members who were later blacklisted.

As previously noted the AFL Executive Council gave the IAM jurisdiction over airline mechanics in October, 1934. For the next two years the IAM, along with the ALPA and the railway brotherhoods, lobbied to have airlines brought under the Railway Labor Act. This effort paid off in 1936 when President Roosevelt signed legislation giving airline workers collective bargaining rights and protections for which railroad employees had fought more than fifty years.

By the late 1930's twenty-six airlines were based in the United States. The Grand Lodge Research Department estimated that between 2,000 and 2,500 mechanics wee employed in ground repair and maintenance work. Four out of five were concentrated on the bases of six major carriers--United, American, TWA, Easter, Pan American and Western Air Express.

Despite the Railway Labor Act, air carriers were no more anxious than the railroads had been to deal with legitimate unions. But like the railroads in the 1890's, the airlines desperately needed skilled mechanics in the 1930's and could not freeze out all union members without cutting themselves off from a source of journeymen essential to their operations. In this industry, as in others the IAM survived because the employers' need for machinist skills outweighed their antagonism to the Machinists Union. The 1936 Officers' Report to the Milwaukee Convention indicates that some carriers tried to keep the skills but stop unionism by transferring men and work from one base and city to another. Mechanics suspected of responding to an IAM organizing pitch in Chicago might be transferred west to Milwaukee or shipped east to Cleveland. The 1936 Officers" Report also showed the eight lodges of aircraft mechanics with a total of 378 members had been chartered and a nucleus existed for at least six others in various parts of the country.

The first known report of an actual IAM agreement with an air carrier appeared in the October, 1938 Journal. GLR E. C. Yeager reported an agreement with Pan American covering mechanics at an airfield in Brownsville, Texas. It set hourly wage rates ranging from 80 to $1.10 with time-and-a-third for overtime and "payment in full for holidays, but employees are not required to work on holidays."

The first system-wide breakthrough came in 1939 when GLR (and later GVP) Jesse McGlon contacted and organized a key group of mechanics at Eastern Airline's main base in Miami following the collapse of a strike by an independent union known as the Airline Mechanics' Association (ALMA). Leaders of this independent organization lacked the resources and know-how to coordinate a system-wide walkout. ALMA officers apparently confused their members by sending contradictory information and instructions to different stations. Easter was headed by a legendary hero of World War I, flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker, who had the usual military attitude toward unions and who fought them vigorously. Rickenbacker boasted that he beat the ALMA at its strongest point, the Newark Airport, by setting up tents and cots and bringing in food for the scabs. The strike collapsed in March, 1939. Spokesman for 130 Eastern mechanics at the Miami airport wired Grand Lodge asking the IAM to come in and pick up the pieces. Unwilling to sabotage a strike in progress, even by an independent union, Harvey Brown took no action until the president of the ALMA advised his members to return to their jobs.

By June, 1939 GLR Jess McGlon signed up enough of the mechanics at Eastern's base in Miami to charter IAM Lodge 702. In a matter of weeks Lodge 702 petitioned the National Mediation Board for a representation election. The IAM received 239 of 260 valid votes and was duly certified as bargaining agent for Eastern's 347 mechanics, specialists, helpers and apprentices. In his autobiography, Rickenbacker described his reaction to the negotiation of the first contract signed between the IAM and Easter Airlines on December 30, 1939. Speaking from an employer point of view he wrote:

Our mechanics and maintenance men had been particularly neglected. Many of them wanted a union to come in and fight their battles for them. Others believed that I was doing my level best to improve their working conditions and increase their salaries and remained loyal. Conflict between the two groups developed to the point at which there were fist fights on the job.
Rickenbacker realized that in beating the independent he had not ended friction in the work place. The fast buildup of IAM membership among Eastern's employees indicated, he later admitted, that "Some men would honestly feel more secure with a union negotiating for them."

The IAM's first contract with Eastern was signed in Miami on December 30, 1939. It included wage increases ranging from $5.00 to $33.00 a month with hourly rates ranging from 53 to 65 for helpers and form 85 to $1.10 for journeymen. Standard working hours were eight-a-day and forty-eight-a-week, with time and a half for overtime and holidays. It established a seniority system along with one week's vacation after six months and two weeks after a year.

The drive that resulted in the IAM's first system-wide collective bargaining agreement in the air transport industry in the United States was paralleled in Canada. In November, 1937 Steve Lyons, the secretary-treasurer of the Canadian Railroad District 2 (and later GVP for Canada) sent Wharton a report on the organization of mechanics working for Trans-Canada Airways (now Air Canada), noting the carrier was jointly owned by the Canadian National Railroad (CNR) and the Canadian Government. Many Trans-Canada mechanics had been recruited directly out of CNR's shops and held IAM membership.

Lyons warned of a move among a group of non-IAM "engineers" to bring back the British-based Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU) which had ceded its North Americans locals to the IAM in 1920. The AEU apparently decided against a return to the North American continent because a year later, in November, 1939, Harvey Brown received word that an agreement had been negotiated with Trans-Canada. The pact covered "the maintenance shop at Winnipeg and airports all across Canada from Halifax to Vancouver."

These two contracts, negotiated almost simultaneously at the end of 1939, set the stage for the IAM's emergence as the largest union of airline employees in the United States and Canada. Like the Boeing contract in the aircraft industry, the agreements with Eastern and Trans-Canada opened the way to IAM organization in the rest of the industry. With these contracts IAM representatives were able to demonstrate the IAM's ability to get results at the bargaining table.

The IAM's influence and presence in the airline industry increased slowly but steadily throughout the war. In mid-1945 the Executive Council assigned some thirty representatives to an all-out nationwide airline organizing campaign. Grand Lodge issued a press release proudly announcing an historic bargaining breakthrough in the industry that September. Negotiations with Eastern produced a reduction in the work week from forty-eight to forty--with no reduction in pay. By the time delegates to the Grand Lodge Convention met in New York in October the Executive Council could report signed agreements with Pan American, Continental, Northeast and several other major airlines in addition to Eastern. More significantly the IAM's thirty airline organizers were applying a full court press on at least eight other carriers.

 World War II and Postwar Reaction 1940~1950
America Goes Back to Work,
Unloading and Albatross,
IAM vs. The Carpenters


Comments or Suggestions? E-mail the Communications Officer
of Siouxland Lodge 1426 IAMAW
Greg Enright