Strike leader tries to rally troops

Union chief makes trips to boost morale of Northwest picketers


ROMULUS, Mich. - The national director of the mechanics union at Northwest Airlines came here yesterday to rally his striking troops, amid signs of discontent among picketers and no end in sight to a 10-day walkout.

The unannounced visit by O.V. Delle-Femine, who heads the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, was part of a morale-boosting trip he is making to airports across the country this week. He noted that he was not flying Northwest during the trip.

He insisted that workers' spirits remained high, even though no talks with the airline have been held since the walkout began Aug. 20. "The guys are here for the long haul," Delle-Femine said, a picket sign in his hand.

About 4,430 mechanics and other employees represented by the union struck Northwest over the airline's demand for $176 million in wage and benefit cuts, and the elimination of 2,000 jobs.

Northwest, based in Eagan, Minn., has kept operating with 1,900 substitutes, including temporary replacement workers, supervisors and contractors. Other airline employees, including pilots, flight attendants and baggage handlers, are not honoring the picket lines.

Even as Delle-Femine shook hands and talked to workers, there were signs that some felt that the union had rushed its members into the strike.

"I think we played right into their hands on everything, because they wanted us to strike," said Chris Hershey, an airplane cleaner who has worked for Northwest for 14 years. "I think we could have waited."

Although the 40-year-old union prides itself on encouraging input from its members, its leaders decided not to take Northwest's last offer to members for a vote. Delle-Femine has defended that decision, pointing out that workers voted 93 percent in favor of a strike in July and calling the airline's final offer "unworthy" of their consideration.

But workers walking picket lines here and at other airports around the country are not receiving strike pay, and their health care coverage from the airline runs out Thursday. Some are looking for new jobs, unable to get by without a paycheck.

So Delle-Femine's visibility is critical to keeping his workers motivated, said Gary N. Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. "He's got to establish himself as a charismatic leader, and he's got to do it quickly," Chaison said. "This is a desperate situation."

The striking union, which is not a member of the AFL-CIO, is feeling increasing hostility from other labor organizations. In Detroit on Saturday, the mechanics union was forced to find a new location for a fundraising dinner after a local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers withdrew its invitation to let the strikers use its union hall.

Union officials contended that the AFL-CIO and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers pressured the electricians union into rescinding the invitation. The mechanics voted in 1998 to leave the Machinists union and join the mechanics union instead.

But officials at the electricians union, the AFL-CIO and the Machinists union said yesterday that they were not aware of the dispute.

Delle-Femine said he was not letting the lack of support from other unions bother him. "That's normal," he said. "They're going to see that we're strong and we're going to hang in there."

For some, Delle-Femine's visit had the intended effect. "It just makes you feel good when he's around," said Jackie Ward, an airplane cleaner with 18 years at Northwest, who snapped pictures of Delle-Femine as he spoke with a group of striking workers.

Although no talks are scheduled with the mechanics, Northwest is set to resume discussions Tuesday with the Professional Flight Attendants Association. It is also holding negotiations with the Machinists union, which includes baggage handlers, customer service agents, reservations clerks and some ground crew workers. The National Mediation Board is overseeing both sets of talks.

Northwest is seeking $1.1 billion in cuts from all its unions, saying it could be forced to seek bankruptcy protection without them. But it has received only $300 million in concessions thus far from its pilots and salaried workers.

Leaders of the Air Line Pilots Association are to meet tomorrow and Thursday in Minneapolis to discuss the airline's bid for a second round of cuts worth $322 million. Under an agreement reached last year, Northwest cannot come back to pilots for more cuts until 30 days after all its other unions have agreed to their first round of cuts, or until next July.

Will Holman, a spokesman for the pilots union, said yesterday that concessions could be granted sooner if the company was in danger of filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. But Northwest has not notified the union that a bankruptcy filing is imminent, he said.

Pilots union officials told members this weekend that the airline wants to cut pilot pay by another 22.3 percent, on top of a 15 percent pay cut granted last year. The figures were first reported by the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

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