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: