Viewpoint: Looking Back on the Northwest Strike

Striking mechanics and cleaners at Northwest Airlines (NWA) voted November 6 to end their 15-month strike. This marks a new stage in airline employees’ fight to turn back an orchestrated assault on wages, benefits, and working conditions.

This decision reflects the strikers’ desire to move on, but it also allows the strikers’ union, the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA), to begin the difficult challenge of rebuilding the union at NWA.

AMFA takes encouragement from other workers and unions that successfully reestablished themselves following a similar defeat. AMFA workers at Alaska Airlines slowly yet persistently restored wages, benefits, and union status following a failed strike conducted by their former union in 1985.

Once it became clear that the strike by mechanics alone could not shut down the carrier, and the other unions on the property would settle with management then the AMFA leadership fought for the best possible strike settlement.

The strikers decided by a three-to-one margin to accept the strike settlement agreement. Each striker must now decide whether to accept ten weeks severance pay without recall rights or accept five weeks severance with two years recall rights.

The union lost its agency shop status in this strike. That means that no worker will be forced to belong to or pay dues to the union. The union, however, retains its status as the legal representative of the mechanic and related class and craft at NWA. If NWA does survive bankruptcy, clearly it is better to be in a position to seek to rebuild the union in the future.

The final settlement allows strikers to be recalled as openings occur. All seniority rights are protected. The original replacement workers hired from vendors and scabs that crossed the picket line remain on the property. Yet they don’t have super seniority for job assignments or protection from future lay offs.

It is a difficult situation no doubt. But history shows that a strong shop floor leadership can over time begin to rebuild the union and improve the lot of the workers.

LABOR DISUNITY

What lessons can be drawn from this 15-month long battle?
The strikers’ determination was not enough to achieve victory. The mechanics and related employees did what no other workers in the industry have done since the Eastern Airlines strike in the late 1980s—strike a union-busting management as it headed into bankruptcy. The strikers, however, were not able to shut down the carrier and force a fair settlement.

The chief reasons for the failure became clear early in the strike. The unity of management, courts, and government allowed NWA’s owners to keep its planes in the air. Disunity in the house of labor undercut the power of the strikers.

NWA management not only hired scabs prior to the strike, it received support from the courts and government at every turn. This included reassigning one FAA inspector that refused to look the other way as NWA maintenance struggled in the early days of the strike.

The leadership of the other unions at NWA, particularly the pilots and ramp and baggage handlers’ unions, refused to support AMFA’s strike. These two unions (the Machinists and the Air Line Pilots Association) each had a representative on the NWA Board of Directors. They not only turned their back on striking workers by crossing the picket lines, but even did struck work.

The failure to build a cross-union alliance exposes a fundamental weakness of all U.S. unions, not just in the airlines. The complicity of most NWA unions in undermining a legal strike (the flight attendants union was the lone exception) even before it began was a gift to management. That betrayal emboldened management to demand similar concessions from the other NWA unions.

AMFA’s decision to strike, in that context, was courageous. It was the only union to stand up and resist the corporation’s draconian concessions by walking the picket line.

Some labor officials criticized AMFA for striking against such odds. They point to AMFA’s independent status (it is not affiliated with the AFL-CIO or Change to Win federation) as the reason that it has few friends. AMFA was criticized as “elitist,” even though it represents not only mechanics, but also cleaners at NWA.

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Regardless, the draconian nature of the company’s final offer, which would have eliminated over half of the union jobs at NWA, made the strike inevitable. The acid test for every union was simple: which side are you on?

LESSONS LEARNED

Could AMFA been better prepared? Could it have taken steps to improve the odds of winning? Of course.

The union could have responded aggressively with picketing and public relations once it became aware that NWA was training replacements at a hotel in Tucson, Arizona months before the strike deadline. (Editor’s Note: NWA spent at least $107 million to hire, train, and house scabs in the 18 months leading up to the strike alone.)

Reaching out to the wider labor community earlier and more aggressively could have led to more substantial support during the strike. Similarly, more should have been done to build alliances with community and campus organizations.

Since NWA operates internationally, AMFA could have also reached out early to international labor organizations to build allies. AMFA did begin to do that as the strike unfolded, and sometimes found unions abroad to be more responsive than their U.S. counterparts.

Unfortunately, even if all these avenues had been fully exploited, they could not outweigh the loss of coordinated action by the other unions at NWA.

ANOTHER WAY

There is one bright spot for labor in the airline industry. NWA’s feeder carrier, Mesaba Airlines, followed NWA into bankruptcy at the end of 2005. Seeing what had happened at NWA, the three main unions at the airline formed the Mesaba Labor Coalition.

The alliance was forged at all levels, with the unions (ALPA, AFA, and AMFA) coordinating their negotiations, legal tactics, and community outreach efforts.

The coalition offers a ready model for labor at every airline. Instead of factionalism, these unions are uniting against their common enemy.

This type of unity will be needed at United Airlines in 2009 when all six of the airline’s major unions’ contracts expire. We need a United Airlines Labor Coalition.

CHALLENGE AHEAD

At Northwest, the next step is to return to a property where scabs still work. It will not be easy.

Yet AMFA is still the legally recognized collective bargaining agent. This gives the union some leverage.

AMFA Assistant National Director Steve MacFarlane captured the sentiment of many NWA strikers: “While we did not stop Northwest, we did stand and fight for what was just and right.

“There is no shame in fighting and losing. There is only shame in failing to have the courage to defend yourself and your coworkers.”


Malik Miah and Terry O’Rourke, United Airlines mechanics, are editors of Way Points, AMFA Local 9’s magazine in San Francisco. Miah is also an Air Line Representative for Local 9. The terms of the strike settlement agreement can be found on the AMFA national website, www.amfanatl.org or at www.amfa33.org.