Municipal Government

Organizing Grows Increasingly Tough For IAMAW

Organizing Grows Increasingly Tough For IAMAW

September 10, 2012
By Joe Maniscalco

James Conigliaro, directing business representative for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers District 15, may look like a tough-as-nails nose tackle, but he’s tired of playing defense.

“The average worker today knows he’s being screwed over,” Conigliaro recently told LaborPress. “He knows he’s being abused by his boss. He knows he’s worth a lot more money. But at the end of the day, he still says, ‘I can’t take the chance of voting in the union in order to get what I think I deserve because there are no jobs out there. And if I get fired…’”

Without organizing, the IAM&AW simply cannot survive. And Conigliaro understands this only all too well. But vanishing manufacturing jobs, a crippling economy, and the insidious feelings of anxiety that naturally ensue, have all conspired to make his job a lot more difficult than it used to be.    

“The only way to fight back is to organize,” Conigliaro said. “It’s easy to say, but it’s hard to organize because you have groups of people that are afraid to lose what they already have. It’s like we have cut off the arms and legs of our workforce in the city, and said you almost have to accept anything the boss wants because you should just be thankful you have a job.”

On the first Monday of every month, the entire staff working out of the IAM&AW District 15 storefront offices at 652 4th Avenue in Brooklyn, meets to try and map out new organizing strategies to help bolster the union’s clout. And yet, at least for right now, there doesn’t seem to be a good alternative beyond trying to educate workers and urging them to organize.

“I have no issues with owners making lots of money,” Conigliaro said. “But there used to be a time when owners had respect for their workers and their families. That attitude doesn’t exist anymore.”
The result of recent job actions involving Con Edison workers in New York City and especially machinists working for construction and mining giant Caterpillar in Joliet, Illinois – where workers ultimately acquiesced to major concessions after an almost four-month strike – are particularly galling to Conigliaro.

“Look at this disgrace with Con Edison,” Conigliaro said. “The IAM just went through the same disgrace with Caterpillar. The workers at Caterpillar accepted an agreement that we told them not to accept because they were out there for 11 weeks. People are so afraid of losing their jobs.”

Locally comprised of high skilled mechanics that help keep UPS trucks and other heavy vehicles running safely throughout New York City, the IAM&AW also represents workers responsible for maintaining vital ground vehicles at both JFK and Laguardia airports.

The labor group still maintains over 300 contract agreements out of its modest District 15 offices on 4th Avenue – although even hanging onto those gains is becoming a tougher proposition. Nevertheless, the IAM&AW is maintaining them, while at the same time managing to “move the ball ahead” by scoring with new workers.  

The decision in May by black car drivers working out of Town Car International in Queens to align with the IAM&AW and certify them as their bargaining agent, is one example that could be a game changer. The scaled down 12,000-member IAM&AW potentially stands to gain an influx of 8 to 10,000 new members should other black car drivers in the city follow suit.  

“We feel pretty good about how [contract negotiations] are going,” Conigliaro said. “And we’re hoping that within the next couple of months we’ll have an agreement, and we’ll be able to go out and show to other black car companies. They drive around the wealthiest people in Manhattan and have no healthcare benefits, no pension benefits, no job security, no unemployment benefits and no disability benefits.”

To change all that, the union is pushing Town Car International to implement several new initiatives aimed at bettering the lives of hardworking drivers. These include a new controlled pricing system, fairness in dispatching to eliminate favoritism, the introduction of waiting time fees, and a pension fund possibly based on a per-ride fund, as well as a legal fund to help fight frivolous traffic tickets.

However, even with so much to gain, black car drivers remain an extremely difficult group to organize.

“Everything about them is tough,” Conigliaro said. “The owners feed on the fact that [drivers] have to pay for their car every month and their insurance every month, so it’s very hard to enter into a job action because their whole livelihood is based on that car to be able to go to work.”

Most of the IAM&AW’s organizing efforts within district 15 start out very basic, often coalescing around talks with the rank and file, as well as the greater community. Those expressing interest in organizing, however, must first demonstrate overwhelming support for unionization – as high as 70 percent among members – before the union will file for an election.

“We make sure there is an in-house committee, and that the in-house committee is strong enough to say, ‘I’m going to deal with the bumps in the road,’ because there are going to bumps in the road,” Conigliaro said. “Employers are going to go out there and do whatever they can to stop the organizing drive.”

And it’s not even always about the money.

Said Conigliaro, “What Wall Street and these big banks did in 2008 and 2009 – other than hurt our people’s pension funds and 401Ks – was take away our dignity. The fact still remains: you are better off in the union than out of it.”

September 10, 2012

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