August 16, 2013
By Joe Maniscalco
Brooklyn, NY – With four new contracts all sewn up, three others pending or in negotiations, and over 600 additional members added over the last 12 months, the International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers (IAM&AW]) District 15 appears to have its organizing engine firing on all cylinders.
But while two of the Brooklyn-based office’s victories – GKN Aerospace on Long Island and Town Car in Queens – represent the bulk of the IAM&AW’s new membership, the group that has traditionally represented mechanics and technicians, continues to cultivate a small-scale organizing strategy that has for years been working successfully for them both strategically and philosophically.
“We’ve always said that if workers want the union, we’re going to help them,” IAM&AW District 15 Directing Business Representative James Conigliaro Sr. recently told LaborPress.
Many times, labor groups will think twice about organizing smaller shops of fewer than 10 workers or less due to the high costs involved versus anticipated returns in the form of membership dues.
However, by refusing to exclusively limit themselves to the “big fish" only, in favor of spreading out and diversifying their organizing efforts, IAM&AW District 15 has managed to successfully navigate through the Great Recession and now position itself for even greater gains.
“I think we were able to fight a lot of the recession with that [thinking],” Conigliaro Sr. says. “If you have a big shop of 1500 people and all your focus is on that shop, when times get hard, [the company] can layoff 500 people. Then the union says, ‘Oh, our membership is down.’ But if you’re spread across 10 or 15 shops, and you have those to counterbalance everything – and it’s not all one industry like we are – you’re kind of able to weather the storm a little bit.”
Two of District 15’s successful organizing drives over the last year have involved shops with fewer than 20 workers. Another – J&G Associates, located in Smithfield, Rhode Island, has just eight.
“We kept organizing during that whole storm even if it was just five guys,” Conigliaro Sr. says. “Once we came out if it, this kind of explosion [in membership] happened were it kicked up again. I think a lot goes into just staying with the smaller shops and not just going after these big-time shops. When you stay diversified, it will keep you afloat business-wise. That is our only business decision that we’ve had.”
Sometimes, smaller shops like J&G Associates are aligned with much larger companies, and can become solid platforms for organizing even more members.
“That’s important,” District 15 General Counsel James Conigliaro Jr. says. “Because it doesn’t matter how small the shop is, we always go after them. If there're five guys there and we’ve got three cards out of five, we’re going to go in and get them. In the past, it’s led us to more organizing.”
To a large extent, smaller shops often represent a more attractive organizing pool because workers are more cohesive, share similar duties and classifications, and are less likely to fall prey to company intimidation.
“It’s easier to pick them off when there’s a large group,” says Conigliaro Sr. “But with a smaller group, we find that we’re more successful because we can focus on the organizing drive. We can get down to the nitty-gritty and the nuts and bolts of why it’s better for them to organize. But you have to think about organizing in general. This is not a choice for the labor movement. This is our number one priority.”
Despite District 15’s successes, Conigliaro, Sr. remains acutely aware of the overall drop in organized labor’s membership rolls, as well as the need to fight the false image of privilege that the right-wing has somehow managed to foist upon hardworking union employees in general.
“You can’t just try to hold on to what you have,” Conigliaro, Sr. says. “That’s not going to move you forward. The union image we should be projecting to everybody is that we protect workers. Whether they are union or non-union, we protect all workers. By having unions, we raise the bar for workers.”
District 15’s big wins may look good on paper, but they don’t represent the years of effort and dogged determination that went into successfully organizing companies like GKN Aerospace and Town Car.
According to Conigliaro, Jr., the ability to circulate protest videos, contract updates and other information wirelessly, has tremendously helped organizing efforts – especially with younger generations of workers comfortable with social media.
“A YouTube clip can work wonders,” Conigliaro, Jr. says. “I think it connects everybody. You can see that there are other people on this, and that you won’t be an outcast if you join in or ask questions. It shows that this is a group effort.”
As it continues to diversity, the outcome of two pending class action lawsuits involving the employment status of about 2500 New York City drivers associated with Executive Transportation Group and Corporate Transportation, could dramatically change district 15’s organizing pool.
“We’re at the tip of the iceberg,” Conigliaro Jr. says. “If the lawsuits end with some kind of structure, that’s going to be a big industry for us. It will level the playing field.”
No matter how long an organizing campaign takes, members hoping to join the IAM&AW never start paying dues until a contract is signed and ratified.
“If they are with us, we’re there until the end,” Conigliaro Sr. says. “We’re going to stick with workers to make sure we achieve a better life for them.”