Northwest Airlines hires guards to watch mechanics at 2 airports

Tensions mount ahead of Aug. 20 strike deadline

July 31, 2005|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

DETROIT - Northwest Airlines Inc. has hired security guards to watch mechanics at Detroit Metro Airport as the airline and mechanics union approach an Aug. 20 strike deadline - a move that has escalated pressure in a tense environment.

Northwest managers have told union leaders for mechanics at Metro Airport and Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport that the airline will add security at the two Northwest hubs.

In labor disputes, companies often hire security firms to monitor workers and prevent theft, sabotage and vandalism.

But the move has intensified workers' frustrations in a bitter dispute. The tension has compounded as workers learned of a dozen layoffs slated to take place next month.

At the Northwest hub at Minneapolis-St. Paul, security guards who appeared to be from Vance International Inc. videotaped flight attendants and mechanics who picketed a Northwest building Wednesday, said Ted Ludwig, president of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association Local 33 in Bloomington, Minn.

Northwest declined to comment on the company's plans for security. "We are not publicly discussing the suppliers that are part of our contingency plans," said Northwest spokesman Kurt Ebenhoch.

Vance spokeswoman Nancy Pieretti said: "We do not comment on either potential clients or existing clients in sensitive corporate situations such as this."

Oakton, Va.-based Vance is known for its involvement in high-profile labor disputes, including the strike at The Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press in the 1990s. The firm also played roles for the coal industry in several violent Appalachian strikes in the 1980s and 1990s.

"That's got us pretty worked up over here. We don't want any violence. We don't want our people being hurt," Ludwig said.

It's unclear what Vance's role for Northwest would be or where its personnel would be stationed. Typically, Vance guards monitor picket lines with surveillance equipment. The guards gather information for possible use against unions in various legal actions.

Ludwig said he is worried that security guards may provoke mechanics at work or, after Aug. 20, on a picket line. "We already have a very emotional group of people who have been here for a long time and who are going to be on strike."

Bob Rose, president of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association Local 5, said that in the early 1990s, when Northwest hired Wackenhut Corp. during a potential labor dispute with its mechanics, the guards went too far.

"If you passed them in the hallway, they wouldn't even acknowledge you," Rose said. "And then it got worse. They're following you to the restroom. They're following you out to your airplanes."

In recent weeks, morale has continued to erode as workers learned about pending layoffs.

About a dozen mechanics who repair jet bridges have been told they will be laid off by Aug. 15 so the airline can outsource that work, Rose said. Those mechanics with seniority can bump mechanics who work in other cities, he said.

Ebenhoch said Northwest informed those mechanics of pending layoffs this month.

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