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Mechanics Prepare for Strike at Northwest Airlines
By Mark Zdechlik, Minnesota Public Radio
March 2, 2001
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Nearly 10,000 Northwest Airlines mechanics and aircraft cleaners are taking a strike vote in a bitter contract dispute that's dragged on for more than four years. President Bush says he won't allow the union to strike until at least May, in hopes of avoiding damage to the nation's economy.

This mechanic, who didn't want his name used or his picture shown, has been performing handyman work in his neighborhood to bolster his own "strike fund."
THE ONLY REAL QUESTION is by what margin Northwest mechanics will authorize a strike. Union leaders are lobbying hard for a strong strike vote. They believe if the company and the public know virtually everyone is willing to walk out, AMFA - the mechanics union - will go into 11th hour talks stronger than ever.

In a frigid garage in a southern Twin Cities suburban neighborhood, an 11-year Northwest mechanic, who doesn't want his name revealed, explains he's been preparing for a strike for nearly two years.

By day this man, husband and father of two, overhauls DC9s in Northwest's huge hangar at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. When he's done there, he becomes a neighborhood handyman, fixing whatever he can for strike-fund cash.

"I go to work from 6:30 until 3:00 at Northwest Airlines. When I get out of there, then I go out and do other things until 7:00 or 8:00 at night," he says.

Northwest mechanics haven't had a raise as part of a contract in 10 years. Their last agreement with the company expired in the fall of 1996. It featured more than 12-percent pay cuts for three years and was a critical element of a package that saved the airline from bankruptcy.

Like other Northwest unions - the pilots who walked out on strike in 1998, the flight attendants who battled in court - the mechanics say they're only holding out for what's fair and they seemed miffed their now-profitable airline is unwilling to share the good times with them.

"It's getting personal. People feel like they're being taken advantage of," the mechanic says.

The mechanics say just to keep up with inflation over the past decade, they're owed a roughly 30-percent pay hike and that they deserve considerably more. The union began asking for a 100-percent pay increase, but has trimmed its proposal to about 40 percent, bringing annual mechanic's base pay to about $64,500. That's still twice the percentage increase the airline has so far been willing to pay.

Northwest's former CEO John Dasburg called the workers demand "bizarre." Federal mediators have characterized the union as "unreasonable." But that doesn't make sense to many of the workers. Talking about the contract dispute, the mechanic will often ask others to imagine their paychecks being the same as 10 years ago.

Paul Volker has been a Northwest mechanic for 21 years. He says he's been unable to finish his home since mechanics gave up wage concessions to keep Northwest out of bankruptcy.
"I am supposed to buy gasoline, buy heat for my house and pay all of my bills, send my kids to college do that sort of thing with the same amount of money I was making in 1990," he says.

Across town in the northern Twin Cities suburb of Andover another Northwest family shares its story.

Paul Volker has been a Northwest mechanic for 21 years. His wife, Dara, is a 16-year Northwest flight attendant.

"For me, it's even less about the wages and more about the promises. I have seen a lot of people die waiting for this contract. I've seen kids that were going to go to private colleges, end up having to go to public colleges. I've seen a lot of people make a lot of sacrifice," says Volker.

But Volker, too, is adamant that he and his fellow mechanics hold out as long as it takes to get the contract that they say they deserve, particularity when it comes to retroactive pay. Other Northwest unions accepted 3.5-percent retroactive bonuses.

The mechanics say they want 100 percent of whatever raise they end up with now paid to them from the fall of 1996. Accepting anything less would reward the airline for refusing to settle for so many years, they say. Volker also points out top Northwest executives, who cashed in millions of dollars in stock options at the same time they were urging workers to accept less.

"It wouldn't bother me seeing those wages deteriorate if there hadn't been such a removal of wealth at the top, and then all of the individuals at the top patting themselves on the back saying what a great job they did," he says.

AMFA National Director O.V. Dell Femine says if Northwest doesn't make a counter offer at last-minute contract talks, "they're just there for show."
Like the mechanic who didn't want his name used, Paul Volker has been supplementing his income with handyman work.

Although AFMA is preparing for a walkout, the Bush administration says it will not allow a strike anytime soon. If the final round of talks fails to yield a settlement, a Presidential Emergency Board will be established. That would prevent the mechanics from striking for two more months, while a third party studies the dispute and makes settlement recommendations.

AMFA National Director O.V. Dell Femine says while the workers he represents are demanding significant increases in compensation, they're willing to negotiate. He says it will become be clear quickly whether a deal is finally within reach.

"If I don't see a counter proposal then they're just there for show," he says.

Northwest insists it is serious about reaching a settlement with its mechanics. But even with strike talk escalating, the airline says customers need not worry about a walkout until late spring.

Mark Zdechlik covers business for Minnesota Public Radio. Reach him via e-mail at