Machinists Union Wants Back in at United

By Staff Report

May. 11, 2009

The International Association of Machinists is trying to win back the mechanics at United Airlines.

The IAM, which was voted out in 2003, says it was approached recently by some mechanics about representing them again. It’s the largest union at United, representing about 17,000 ramp workers, customer service agents and others.

The move comes as the Chicago-based airline begins negotiations with all six of its unions, and it could force the third change in representation for the mechanics in less than a decade.

IAM’s key selling point is its traditional defined-benefit pension plan; its members are the only United workers who still have such a plan. The company-sponsored pension plans were ended after parent UAL Corp. entered bankruptcy protection, and they were transferred to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., which pays a fraction of the original amount.

United switched its retirement program to a 401(k) plan with a company contribution, lowering its labor costs. But 401(k) plans took a beating during the recent downturn that has left the stock market down by nearly half from its peak in 2007. IAM workers can contribute to United’s 401(k), but instead of a company match, they opted for contributions to the IAM national pension plan.

“Anybody who has looked at a 401(k) plan recently wishes they had a defined-benefit plan,” the union spokesman says.

United’s 5,500 active mechanics, including about 450 in Chicago, last year voted to be represented by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The Teamsters replaced the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, which ousted the IAM in 2003, when United was in bankruptcy.

The IAM will begin collecting signatures from 9,000 active and furloughed mechanics in an effort to force a vote. But because the mechanics selected a new union last year, the earliest an election could be called would be April 2010. Judging by the slow pace of labor negotiations in the airline industry, it’s unlikely United will have reached any agreement with unions on new contracts by then.

The Teamsters did not return calls seeking comment.

Filed by John Pletz of Crain’s Chicago Business, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, e-mail

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