Airline unions have made wave after wave of wage, benefit, and pension concessions since September 2001– often under the gun of bankruptcy threats. Now Northwest Airlines is upping the ante, pushing for a business model that copies non-union airlines like JetBlue and demanding to lay off more than half its maintenance workforce.
So when 4,400 mechanics, cleaners, and maintenance workers struck August 20, says Northwest mechanic Eric Yubian, they had no choice. “It’s union busting 101. They want to make Northwest an open shop,” said Yubian, who works at New York’s Laguardia Airport. “If they force this on us, you can bet the rest of the airlines will follow.”
Forbes magazine wrote that Northwest (NWA) could “become a template for other big airlines to slash labor costs and move toward profitability.”
The strike represents the labor movement’s first test since the recent AFL-CIO split and, so far, leaders on both sides are failing spectacularly, refusing to pledge support to the strikers and even encouraging union members to cross the picket lines. Support has been strong in some cities, however, particularly at the Northwest hub in Minneapolis, and in San Francisco and Boston.
The strikers are fighting a proposed 25.7 percent pay cut, layoffs for over half the unit’s workforce, reduced sick pay, reduced vacation/holidays, increased health care costs, a pension freeze, and increased outsourcing to non-union shops.
Said Steve MacFarlane, a 25-year NWA mechanic and assistant national director of the Airline Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA), “This has ramifications for the entire labor movement. If we can’t fight back under these kinds of circumstances — we’re finished.”
Yubian said, “The guys believe in what they’re standing for. There might be bad blood between the unions, but this is bigger than that.”
Though AMFA has struggled to get support nationally, strikers have received a good deal of support at the local level. Said Yubian, “Union members are supporting us, even if the union does not.”
Yubian noted that members of the Transport Workers Union (TWU), Machinists (IAM), and Teamsters all showed support for the picket lines. “Gate agents (represented by IAM) dropped off food and water to support the lines, and gave us information about flight delays and maintenance problems. Ramp personnel (also IAM) got us information as well.”
Chuck Schalk, an American Airlines mechanic in TWU Local 562 in New York, walked the line at LaGuardia. “A strike is a strike,” he said. “Corporate America is going after unions in this country, and here’s a union standing up and saying, ‘enough is enough.’ If we don’t support them, we’re just as bad as the bosses.”
TWU members walked the lines in Dallas and other cities. In Detroit, pickets included, among others, members of IAM Local 141, UAW Local 600, and Southeast Michigan Jobs with Justice.
Though pickets were spirited and NWA had to cancel 25 percent of its flights on the strike’s first day, AMFA faces an uphill fight.
Since the post-9/11 airline industry meltdown, airline unions have faced a relentless management assault on their wages, benefits, and pensions. Faced with bankruptcy threats, in an increasingly hostile political climate, union after union in the industry has surrendered, taking massive concessions with little talk of fighting back.
“Nine months of negotiations and [management’s] offer hasn’t changed a dime,” said MacFarlane. “I mean, how low can we go here?”
Management planned its anti-strike moves for 14 months. As soon as the strike began, NWA outsourced the bulk of its aircraft maintenance and brought in an estimated 1,400 scabs to do the remaining work. In all, Northwest spent more than $100 million on strike preparations; it is demanding $176 million in concessions from AMFA.
A HOUSE DIVIDED
Despite AMFA’s pre-strike calls for solidarity, neither the AFL-CIO nor Change to Win nor other independent unions at Northwest have committed to sympathy strikes or other support.
Questioned about AMFA’s requests for support, AFL-CIO Organizing Director Stewart Acuff attacked the union shortly before the strike as a “renegade, raiding organization” and said AMFA and its more than 10,000 members are “not in the house of labor.”
The Machinists union, which represents gate agents and other ground crew workers at Northwest, holds a grudge against AMFA, which has gained most of its members by decertifying IAM units. Northwest mechanics and cleaners left the IAM for AMFA in 1997.
IAM Vice President Robert Roach has said, “IAM members will not be duped into standing with AMFA.”
Members of the Professional Flight Attendants Association, an independent union at NWA, voted down a sympathy strike. PFAA has stated that it will defend the right of individual workers not to cross, however.
Teamsters spokespeople stated, “Members are free to honor the picket lines, depending on individual locals’ contract language. We’re respecting the Northwest workers, but this is not necessarily a show of support for AMFA.
“To our knowledge, none of our members have crossed the lines.”
Schalk called the IAM’s statements “very disturbing,” saying, “These labor leaders are acting like children. When workers are striking, you don’t cross the lines. We shouldn’t have to remind people about that.”
Some IAM members have not only been crossing the lines, but also taking on AMFA members’ work. “To cross a picket line is bad enough,” said Yubian, “but crossing a picket line to do struck work — you shouldn’t even be in a union.”
In an open letter of support for the strikers, Trent Willis, president of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10 in San Francisco, made reference to labor’s devastating defeat in the 1981 air traffic controllers strike.
“Have they learned nothing from the devastating defeat of the PATCO strike 24 years ago?” asked Willis. “In 1981, officers of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers’ union (PATCO) were hauled off to jail in handcuffs at the urging of President Reagan. Unions at airports crossed the PATCO picket lines. . . . The tragic result: a union in a key transport industry was broken and all workers have suffered from that defeat since.”
Unlike with PATCO, President George W. Bush has said he will not intervene at Northwest. A White House spokesperson said Bush does not view the strike as presenting “a substantial disruption of interstate commerce.”
Northwest has stated repeatedly that if AMFA refuses concessions, bankruptcy may be unavoidable. However, it appears that, with or without concessions, NWA — which has been running $3.6 billion in operating losses since 2001 — is headed for bankruptcy.
MacFarlane said that bankruptcy might not be the worst option. “We don’t think a bankruptcy judge would be any worse than what Northwest is trying to push.
“In bankruptcy court, Northwest would have to prove that they need all these givebacks and, frankly, I’m not sure if they can do it.”
[For more on solidarity efforts for NWA strikers, see <detroitsupport.blogspot.com>]
Chris Kutalik is editor of Labor Notes. Kutalik comes to labor activism through his experiences as a local officer in Amalgamated Transit Union local 1549 in Austin, Texas. He has served as an editor and writer for several alternative publications, the most recent of which being the Working Stiff Journal, a monthly newspaper covering labor issues in Central Texas. He currently covers Teamsters, transit, airlines, and rail for Labor Notes. William Johnson is co-editor of Labor Notes. He has been involved in various anti-racism and workers’ rights campaigns in southeastern Michigan, including the campaign to maintain affirmative action at the University of Michigan. He covers teachers, public-sector workers, SEIU, and postal workers. This article first appeared in Labor Notes (September 2005), reproduced here with the editor’s permission.