Labor's Outside Man

Hired-gun contractor Kevin McCormick has never been in a union, yet he runs a major aviation guild. Odd? He thinks it makes perfect sense

Labor leaders typically follow the same arc in their careers, starting with an entry-level job at a unionized shop, rising to a union post at the local and district levels, and then, finally, winning election to the national presidency. Not Kevin McCormick. He operates one of today's fastest-growing unions, the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Assn. (AMFA), yet he had never previously even been in a union. Not only that, he works as an outside contractor.

McCormick, 53, fell into organized labor almost by chance. After taking an early-retirement buyout at Polaroid more than 20 years ago, he eventually set up on his own as a financial adviser. One of his clients was a property association whose officers included a Delta Air Line (DAL ) pilot. McCormick began advising the pilot on organizing a new union at Delta. That work, in turn, led him in 1994 to month-to-month consulting for AMFA, then just a tiny guild.

He formally hired on as AMFA's national administrator in 1998. He and his 60-employee company, McCormick Advisory Group, are now midway through their second four-year contract with the union, which is valued at $800,000 a year, based on today's membership numbers.


  McCormick's heretical background hasn't hurt AMFA, however. Since 1998, it has picked up mechanics at United, Northwest (NWAC ), Southwest (LUV ), and ATA Airlines, swelling its ranks to nearly 20,000 from just 1,500. Soon, it may have more. By mid-June, the National Mediation Board is expected to rule on whether to allow American Airlines' 16,000 mechanics to vote this summer between AMFA and the incumbent Transport Workers Union. AMFA organizers are also distributing petitions at Delta.

As a paid adviser, moreover, McCormick helped install the Professional Flight Attendants Assn. (PFAA) at Northwest Airlines after ousting the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. With McCormick acting as outside consultant, the PFAA is now trying to supplant the Association of Flight Attendants at United.

From Indianapolis, where he's heading AFMA's contract talks with ATA Airlines, and from his consultancy in Laconia, N.H., McCormick talked with BusinessWeek Senior Correspondent Michael Arndt about his role in the American labor movement.

Q: The more-traditional unions in the airline industry don't speak highly of you. In fact, they disparage you as a carpetbagger. What do you say in response?


It's because of our success. I know what they're saying about me: "Kevin's only into it because he's going to get a management fee out of it." But quite frankly, when they can no longer defend themselves, they have to lash out and be critical of the other side. It can't be said that Kevin is out there just to line his own pockets. You won't find any marketing material from me on the Internet.

Q: But according to Web sites that your opponents run, you do get paid more the more members you sign up. Do they have it right?


Yes, but when the membership rises, we have to increase the size of our staff. Our costs go up. But the cost-per-member declines. It also allows AMFA to know what their administrative costs are going to be because they're set by contract.

Q: How many of your employees work for AMFA?


Ten full-time, and then I pull in other staff members when I have a need. AMFA is paying for services they need, not hiring staff and then finding work for them.

Q: In terms of AMFA's cost structure, do members come out ahead vs. what they'd pay at the more traditional unions?


Every analysis shows that AMFA enjoys the lowest cost for national administration. We've always tried to be on the conservative side when we measure this. We don't provide legal services, while a lot of unions have in-house legal staffs, so we pull that out, for instance. And AMFA itself has done analysis on what it would cost to do these services in-house and they found that we're no more expensive.

Another thing is, I have a staff that has been involved with AMFA for the last 10 years. They're dedicated to AMFA. They believe in AMFA. That type of loyalty and dedication is something you just can't go out and buy.

Q: You must run into your counterparts from traditional labor. What kind of reception do you get when it's just you guys?


Very cordial. Very professional. Their attacks against me are political, to try to defend their position. I understand that. I'm not taking it personally. I've got a job to do. Quite frankly, when people come to us and ask for help, I tell them, "Let it be known, I'm going to be a lightning rod. They're going to come after me." Everybody says, "Fine, let them do it."

Q: What do you say to people when they question whether you should be running a union, given your background?


I'm not running a union. I'm managing a union. I've been doing that -- managing things -- for 25 years. Now I have 12 years of labor experience. I think my qualifications speak for themselves.

We're professionals at what we do. We provide the service under the guidance of the national officers. We don't make decisions. Other unions try to put that out there, that we're decisionmakers. We're not. We carry out the direction of the National Executive Council. They're putting too much emphasis on what they think my control is.

Q: In your view, there's not much difference between administering this organization and any other organization?


It's an association, and we're professionals at providing services to associations. But we also have a lot of experience in airline labor.

Q: AMFA has picked up most of its members because people are tired of their old unions. They don't feel like they're getting the best contract. Now that you've become the incumbent at many airlines, I'm wondering if that might become a problem for you -- that you'll be the next bums who are thrown out.


That's their right. If we're not doing the job for them, then they should throw us out. Are we perfect? No. But at least the membership gets to control the direction of AMFA, not the leadership.

Q: Were you ever in a union?


I was in an employee committee when I was at Polaroid in the 1970s.

Q: Is there an overarching philosophy that guides you in your role in the labor movement?


The members should give the union the direction. The union is there to represent the members, period. One of the complaints is that Kevin can't be recalled. Well, unions hire outside attorneys and outside accountants. They can be terminated. Officers who don't do their jobs can be recalled. There are also performance clauses in our contract, and we have to perform in order to maintain our contract. If I don't perform, my contract can be terminated.

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