Skip to main content

Solidarity is Key to Win Northwest Airline Strike

By Jon Bekken - Industrial Worker, October 2005

Northwest mechanics and cleaning crews remain solidly united as their strike against massive concessions that would cost most workers their jobs enters its second month. Unable to entice strikers to cross the picket lines, Northwest began hiring permanent replacements Sept. 13, and has contracted out nearly all of its cleaning work.

Delta and Northwest airlines filed for bankruptcy Sept. 14, after unions balked at the carriers' demands for another round of deep pay cuts, lay-offs and other concessions. While Northwest has said it will refuse to deal with the mechanics during the bankruptcy proceedings, this stance is illegal.

In the most recent round of contract talks, Northwest said it was willing to keep only 1,080 mechanics' jobs; most mechanics and all aircraft cleaner and custodian positions represented by the union would be outsourced, eliminating 3,181 positions that existed before the strike. Northwest had originally demanded "only" 2,000 lay-offs, so it is clearly feeling emboldened by the way other union workers have been waltzing across the mechanics' picket lines.

Even though it would cost more than three-fourths of its members their jobs, the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association negotiating team said it was willing to present Northwest's proposal for a vote, but ultimately withdrew from contract talks when Northwest refused to offer an acceptable severance package for the workers who would lose their jobs and insisted on intolerable working conditions for the survivors of this industrial carnage.

Although dozens of baggage handlers, ground crew and flight attendants have honored AMFA picket lines, massive union scabbing has allowed Northwest Airlines to keep its planes flying with a mix of 1,200 scabs, about 350 managers who are licensed mechanics, and outside maintenance firms - even if at such a heavy cost that the carrier has been pushed into bankruptcy.

The Machinists and pilots unions have directed their members to scab; the independent Professional Flight Attendants Union (which only represents workers at Northwest) officially supports the strike but is not honoring picket lines. The Teamsters have told their members they are on their own as far as the picket lines go, but have had the decency to cancel staff travel plans on the struck carrier.

Since the strike began, the AFL-CIO has issues mealy-mouthed statements of support for the workers, while refusing to support the strike itself. On the eve of the strike the AFL issued a memo warning that, "AMFA may ask CLCs and State Feds for support: food banks, money, turnout at AMFA picket lines and at rallies etc. StateFeds and CLCs should not provide AMFA with such support, unless the national AFL-CIO instructs them to do so." Far from encouraging solidarity, AFL-affiliated unions have been doing all in their power to disrupt local solidarity efforts.

The newly independent Change to Win Coalition unions, which include thousands of airline workers in their ranks, have made no official mention of the strike.

Meanwhile, the CWA-affiliated Association of Flight Attendants is trying to raid the independent union which represents 9,600 Northwest flight attendants, making not-so-veiled threats that other airline unions will scab should they be forced to strike, leaving them to fight alone just like the mechanics. This threat might be more persuasive if AFL-affiliated unions had a better record of honoring each others' picket lines.

Northwest is demanding more than $150 million a year in concessions from the flight attendants, including outsourcing international flights to cheaper overseas crews and hiring nonunion crews to work small aircraft. The changes would eliminate more than half of flight attendant jobs.

Growing solidarity

Despite attempts to isolate the Northwest strikers, solidarity actions are slowly taking root. Thousands of strikers and their supporters rallied across from the Northwest hangar at the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International airport Aug. 27, including many uniformed Northwest flight attendants. The flight attendants' union president spoke at the rally, and the union is encouraging members to join solidarity rallies and defending flight attendants who have been fired for refusing to cross AMFA picket lines.

The United Auto Workers have donated $880,000 in strike relief funds. In an implicit rebuke to other unions which have been actively undermining the strike, 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."

Members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union have been joining AMFA picket lines on the West Coast, and labor councils in Alameda County, San Francisco and Northwest Oregon have passed motions of support. (The IWW has also adopted a resolution, which is published on page 6.)

Hundreds of supporters joined striking mechanics at San Francisco International Airport on Labor Day. Airline mechanics and flight attendants from American Airlines, United Airlines and other carriers not only joined the rally but spoke in solidarity. Most significantly, IAM strikers and local union officials joined the rally. The Machinists' NWA Grievance Committee Chairperson Janice Sisco spoke, saying that all units were threatened by the attack on the mechanics. AMFA District Council 9 President Joe Prisco also spoke, declaring that AMFA would honor all picket lines as a matter of principle no matter what union was involved.

Absent were Bay Area AFL-CIO and Change To Win leaders, even though they had acceded to rank-and-file pressure to pass a resolution supporting the strike.

In Detroit, IBEW, IWW, UAW and other unionists had been planning an August 27 benefit for the strikers at IBEW Local 58's hall, which they have used for several labor solidarity events over the years. When Machinists  officials learned of the event, they called the local to demand that it be cancelled. Local 58 officials explained that they had rented the hall to a community organization, so the IBEW international stepped in and ordered them to lock the hall to prevent the event from taking place.

A new venue had to be found and publicized on 30 hours' notice, and it was. A local bar lent its kitchen for the cooking and two Detroit night spots opened their doors Saturday evening, accommodating 500 strike supporters. Outraged IBEW officials demanded that the local turn over the burglar alarm company's records to prove that the hall had not been used for the purpose of supporting workers fighting to defend their jobs.

Many Northwest aircraft may be unsafe. A Federal Aviation Administration inspector who raised serious concerns about maintenance problems in the first days of the strike was reassigned after the airline complained. Minnesota-based FAA inspector Mark Lund wrote that the situation at Northwest "jeopardizes life or property." The FAA downplayed the warning, noting that Lund is active in the union representing inspectors.

Despite the courageous actions of dozens of workers to honor the AMFA picket lines (more than offset by union scabbing that has gone far beyond the normal treachery - in one case a Northwest pilot actually moved equipment on the ground in order to get his scab plane ready for take-off), the picket lines have not shut the carrier down. Northwest is canceling many flights, and on some days more than half of its flights have been delayed by 15 minutes or longer. And in order to fill its flights, Northwest is increasingly relying on code sharing (particularly through its Delta partner) and budget booking systems (which do not identify the carrier until after tickets are purchased) to lure passengers onto its planes under false colors.

Yet while the growing solidarity is heartening evidence that many rank-and-file workers are repulsed by the union scabbery and jurisdictional squabbling that has left the mechanics to fight on their own, if the strike is to be won the airline will have to be shut down. Ideally this would be done by other Northwest workers honoring the picket lines. If not, mass picketing will be necessary. If AMFA is defeated in this fight, it will touch off a renewed wave of concessions demands throughout all industry. In this case, as is so often the case, an injury to one really is an injury to all.