Union Struggles at Northwest Airlines


The
battle being waged at Northwest Airlines (NWA) by the independent
Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA) and its supporters
started with a strike on August 20. Northwest’s management
has put pressure on the 4,400 strikers, pushing demands as the weeks
progress towards what a company spokesperson called, “a permanent
solution for that segment of the workforce.” 


Talks
broke down September 11 after NWA pushed a proposal that AMFA Local
5 member Curt Booza characterized as an attempt “to completely
eliminate us from the property.” NWA began moves to permanently
replace strikers on September 13. Shifting from its original proposal
to cut over half of its 4,400 AMFA jobs (including all of the lower-paid
cleaner jobs that employ a greater percentage of women and people
of color), NWA then demanded a 75 percent job reduction. 






Though AMFA negotiators
appeared ready to accept large-scale job cuts, NWA refused to entertain
the union’s insistence on a 20-week severance package for terminated
workers. This refusal left negotiations at a stalemate and workers
remained on the picket lines. 



Highlighting
fears that larger givebacks would spread beyond the mechanics union,
AMFA negotiator Jeff Mathews observed that NWA had raised its goal
for wage and benefit concessions for all its unions from $1.1 billion
to $1.4 billion. According to Mathews, “Some groups, including
the IAM [International Association of Machinists], may be asked
to shoulder a disproportionately larger share of the new target
amount.” Despite mounting pressure, morale remains high. A
month into the strike, only ten AMFA members had crossed the lines.
In places where AMFA locals are active and cross-union support was
organized, rallies, fundraisers, and other actions have kept spirits
relatively up. 


Hearts
and Minds 


In
other unions, sharp divisions have developed over the strike, pitting
irate rank and filers and local officers against international leaders
who have either refused to endorse or actively undermined strike
support efforts. Cross-union solidarity efforts in Detroit, Minneapolis,
and San Francisco have run into such resistance. In the lead-up
to the strike deadline, local labor bodies were explicitly ordered
by the AFL-CIO not to participate in any efforts to assist strikers.
In an August 15 memo, AFL-CIO Collective Bargaining Department Director
Rick Bank ordered state federations and central labor councils not
to organize or support boycotts, food banks, relief funds, or turnout
at AMFA picket lines or rallies without the permission of the national
AFL-CIO. Local bodies were further told that they “have no
power or authority to instruct affiliates to honor picket lines.”
All requests to honor pickets were to be referred to the two AFL-CIO
unions still working at NWA: the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA)
and the Machinists union (IAM). 


Alarmed
by what they see as a potential major defeat for the labor movement,
many unionists have been backing the strike despite the ban. While
some hold criticisms of AMFA as a craft-oriented union with a history
of decertification battles with AFL-CIO unions, many of these critics
also maintain that the stakes are high enough to warrant throwing
support behind the strikers. 


They
point to the use of permanent replacements (which haven’t been
seen in airlines since the 1989 Eastern Airlines strike), the deteriorating
situation for all airline unions since 9/11, and the recent AFL-CIO
split as reasons to support the strike. “If we don’t [get
behind the strikers], it shows that we haven’t learned a lesson
from PATCO and on,” said Al Benchich, president of UAW Local
909 and co-chair of Southeast Michigan Jobs with Justice. “If
we don’t stand together, we’re going to fall as individuals.” 


In
a boost for the strikers, the UAW International donated $880,000
from its strike fund. UAW President Ron Gettelfinger said, “Northwest
Airlines’ behavior toward AMFA is blatant union busting and
an insult to every American worker. The UAW is proud to offer this
support to AMFA members.” 


The
International Longshore and Warehouse Union, the Aircraft Engineers
International, the Professional Airways Systems Specialists (the
union that represents FAA inspectors), the newly-formed Minnesota
Change to Win Coalition (state affiliates of SEIU, Teamsters, UFCW,
UNITE HERE, Laborers, and the Carpenters), four central labor councils
(in Michigan, California, and Oregon), and a number of UAW locals
have announced support for the strikers. Additionally, UNITE HERE
and Steelworkers District 2 have stopped flying Northwest. 






In a few cities,
union and community members organized strike support on short order.
In Detroit—a Northwest hub—activists from the late 1990s
Detroit newspaper strike, Jobs with Justice, UAW, IBEW, the Newspaper
Guild (CWA), and Labor Notes joined with AMFA Local 5 members to
organize an August 27 “ox roast” (a traditional fundraiser)
at IBEW Local 58’s hall. 



IBEW
International leaders intervened the day before the fund- raiser,
demanding that the local lock its doors for the weekend. Organizers
scrambled to reschedule, moving the event to two local bars that
had been used as support bases during the newspaper strike. Despite
IBEW’s interference, over 150 local activists attended and
$3,900 was raised. Strikers also took their message to Labor Day
events. UAW Region 1-A invited hundreds of AMFA Local 5 members
and their families to march in its contingent in Detroit’s
Labor Day march. Marching UAW, AFSCME, SEIU, NALC, APWU, and CWA
members gave a warm response to strike supporters handing out leaflets
and collecting money around a sound truck parked on the parade route. 


Nearly
200 rallied in a symbolic picket at a local casino near the parade’s
end, with signs saying, “Don’t Gamble with NWA.”
AMFA Local 5 President Bob Rose called the Labor Day action “a
shot in the arm.” 


Broadening
Out 


Besides
building outside support, strikers have been trying to broaden their
fight from the well-controlled airport picket lines. A group of
20 Local 5 members drove to the CSX railyard in Toledo and set up
pickets on September 6. Ninety-five percent of the yard’s Detroit-bound
freight traffic was snarled after Teamster engineers and rail workers
refused to cross the picket. Teamsters returned to work only after
CSX won a court order on September 8 that mandated that they cross
the line. AMFA members traveled to the Jobs with Justice conference
and the Change to Win convention in St. Louis at the end of September
to network and rally labor activists and leaders to their cause. 


Although
NWA has consistently claimed that the strike has not affected its
operations, the airline filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy (along with
another major carrier, Delta) on September 14. Rising fuel costs
(spiked by Hurricane Katrina) and the effects of the strike (sliding
on-time flight performance, declining ticket revenues, and the $101
million price tag for NWA’s union-busting strategy) led to
losses estimated at $350-400 million in the third quarter. 


Bankruptcy
is a wild card for the strikers. U.S. Air and United were able to
use bankruptcy courts to force open contracts and extract hundreds
of millions of dollars in concessions. AMFA leaders, however, see
little to lose in the courts. 


With
the bankruptcy, strikers see the potential for a larger fight that
would pull in other unions as NWA pushes even harder for concessions.
If one or more of the unions representing flight attendants, pilots,
or ramp and gate agents are drawn in, there is the chance that they
may end up on the picket lines themselves. A broader strike involving
flight crews could raise pressure on the company by grounding many
of its flights. Commenting on the need for urgent action, the Airline
Workers News Service wrote: “Time is running out. If union
members in the [Professional Flight Attendant Association] and IAM
do not act soon to aid mechanics, cleaners and custodians, Northwest
will simply dictate terms and destroy unions, contracts, and livelihoods.”
The question is: will these unions act and will it be enough?




Chris Kutalik
is currently co-editor of
Labor Notes in Detroit. He was also
a local officer in Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1549 in Austin,
Texas.