Mechanics' strike against Northwest failed to take off

Local's members all replaced

union criticized

December 30, 2005|By STEPHEN FRANKLIN | STEPHEN FRANKLIN,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

ROMULUS, Mich. -- Like a tiny train circling a small track, Michael Trudeau marches on, clutching his picket sign in the fading sunlight and navigating his course from behind large snow goggles.

"I'm here to show Northwest there are some people who are not giving up," the middle-aged airline mechanic said, huffing in the bone-chilling air.

Trudeau has logged more than 600 miles since he began his four-hour-a-day, six-day-a-week vigil four months ago, when dozens of striking mechanics trod beside him here at a Northwest Airlines terminal at Detroit Metro Airport.

But just as his union brethren have largely disappeared, so, too, has the wallop behind the strike by the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association. It is one of few strikes in recent years by workers in the seriously troubled airline industry, and it appears headed for a grim ending.

All of the 4,400 strikers have been replaced by the airline. At least 280 strikers and another 200 laid-off union members have crossed AMFA's picket lines. Not one of the six other unions at Northwest has honored the picket lines.

More significant, the airline appears to have successfully called the bet by mechanics, who were sure Northwest would stumble without them. But it hasn't. Relying on a small number of new hires and outside firms, Northwest has shown the strikers to be replaceable.

Now, the union's members are voting on a contract that is essentially a goodbye kiss from Northwest.

If workers approve it, they stand to receive four weeks severance and six months of unemployment benefits. But union officials are urging their rank-and-file to reject it, even as some privately say there is little hope of beating the world's fourth-largest airline if the strike goes on.

The votes will be tallied today.

Whatever the outcome, the question lingers: How did it come to this? The 12,000-member union, which virtually exploded in the past decade, drew workers away from other unions at Northwest, United and Southwest Airlines with promises of being a tough, "no concessions" bargainer. Why has it fared so badly in its battle with Northwest? Steve MacFarlane, AMFA's assistant national director, blames Northwest's other unions, which declined to help shut down the airline, he said. Several union leaders personally assured him that their members would honor AMFA's picket lines, MacFarlane said. He would not name those leaders.

However, the lack of solidarity goes beyond Northwest's gates.

"The dirty little secret is that the labor movement abandoned these guys," said Robert Bruno, a labor expert at the University of Illinois, Chicago.

The United Auto Workers union has been the only major union to back AMFA, providing more than $800,000 in support for the strikers.

Leaders of the Professional Flight Attendants Association, which represents 10,000 at Northwest, also have backed the strike. But their members voted against a strike of their own.

But some labor experts and union officials say AMFA is responsible for some of its lack of support and was naive to think it could count on organized labor's support, considering its history of election battles with the Teamsters and International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

For years, other unions mocked the efforts of O.V. Delle-Femine, AMFA's founder, to create a craft union for mechanics. Their derision turned to rage when AMFA scooped up members from those unions by appealing to their discontent.

Northwest's mechanics quit the machinists union for AMFA in 1998, and United's mechanics followed in 2003.

Machinists union spokesman Rick Sloan said there was no way his union would have supported AMFA. Not, he said, "after a 40-year history of them preaching, `We can stand alone.' And a much more recent history of intimidation of our membership."

There were other dangers AMFA should have heeded, labor experts say.

Anticipating problems with the union, Northwest set up a costly training program for mechanics that was not kept a secret. That gave Northwest several hundred replacement workers the day AMFA's members walked out. The airline also was able to rely upon the deep pool of thousands of laid-off airline mechanics.

The strike also played into Northwest's budget-cutting strategy and efforts to pare down the number of mechanics on its payroll, experts add.

Indeed, the number of mechanics declined significantly at Northwest, dropping to more than 3,600 when the union struck from more than 7,500 five years ago. The airline said it now relies on 880 mechanics and outside contractors to do the strikers' work. Northwest officials would not identify the firms nor indicate how many are outside the United States.

Cornell University labor expert Rick Hurd likens AMFA's strike decision to the "mistakes" made in the 1980s by blue-collar unions faced with collapsing industries. They refused to believe companies' stories of financial woes or accept their concession demands, and soon found their members out of work, he said.

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