Saturday, February 22, 2020
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Last day on the job for hundreds more Northwest mechanics
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Joe Wagner, a mechanic at Northwest Airlines, expects Friday will be his last day there. He's preparing for life after the airline by taking classes at a community college. (MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)
While Northwest Airlines and its mechanics union edge toward a possible strike, Friday is the last day of work for about 580 Northwest Airlines mechanics in the Twin Cities. Another 140 lost their jobs earlier this summer. The airline says the mechanics worked on planes that are no longer needed because of slow growth in business this year.

Mechanics say it has more to do with Northwest using outside repair shops. Either way, for many it's the end of a job they had once thought would be long and stable.

Brooklyn Park, Minn. — One evening this week, Joe Wagner is walking to class. He's been a Northwest mechanic for 15 years, but tonight he's trying to get his head into a subject that has nothing to do with aircraft maintenance.

"Trial law, civil law, torts and all the different procedures for trials and that sort of thing," Wagner says.

Even though for the moment he still has a job at Northwest, Wagner is exploring a new career as a paralegal at North Hennepin Community College.

"It is definitely taking some getting used to," Wagner says. "Part of it is being one of the older people there, at 41. Most of the people in the classes are in their early 20s or late teens. Old dogs and new tricks, that saying? There is something to that."

It's sad. A lot of very good people have left. Good people, competent people that were doing a great job for more than a decade are gone.
- Joe Wagner

Wagner is pretty sure this is his last week at Northwest. The union contract allows mechanics with a pink slip to take the jobs of less senior mechanics here or in other Northwest locations. Some mechanics like Wagner won't know until the last minute if they've been bumped.

His situation is a little unusual. To save his job two years ago, Wagner volunteered to work on ground vehicles at the airport, rather than airplanes. It's a specialty that -- for a time -- has helped him hang onto his job while mechanics with far more seniority could not.

"Now that period of time is ending, and they're looking to get rid of that maintenance as well," he says. "Besides that, laying off 500 to 750 mechanics this year at least is going to push me out of Minneapolis."

Northwest has trimmed mechanics' ranks as its losses have approached $3 billion over several years.

Wagner considered bumping someone else in another city. He and his wife considered moving with their son to Duluth or Detroit. They ultimately decided to plan a future here that did not include Northwest Airlines.

"It just seemed like I would probably ultimately be facing the same fate, only in another city," says Wagner. At least now, here, I have my house. It's a modest house, and I can afford that with a lesser-paying job."

Wagner is registered for two other community college programs -- in sheet metal work and heating and air conditioning.

It's not that there's no demand for aircraft mechanics. The number of Americans taking to the skies has been rising. Jerry Yagen owns a chain of six aviation maintenance schools around the U.S., and says his graduates are having no trouble finding work.

"I don't think any of the workers for Northwest will have any problem getting a job," says Yagen. "But they might have to move to other areas of the country, and the wages might be less depending on whom they go to work for."

For mechanic Joe Wagner, it would probably mean making far less than the $70,000 a year he makes now. Perhaps more painful, it could mean working for one of the outside maintenance bases many mechanics see as the reason their jobs are disappearing.

Wagner says he still loves the precision of aircraft repair, and the sense of pride in getting people safely across land and oceans. But he says he never plans to work on an airplane again, and he's not the only one.

"It's sad. A lot of very good people have left. Good people, competent people that were doing a great job for more than a decade are gone," he says. "Many of them will never work in aviation again and it's a loss."

Because of his specialty, Wagner may yet have a job. If so, he'll be working in a hangar of grandfathers. Layoffs always take out the least-senior mechanics, and the president of the local union expects Friay's layoffs will push the average age close to 60.

Even if Wagner keeps his job, he says going to work won't feel like any kind of victory.

"You come into work and the parking lots will be relatively empty. The building will be a lot quieter than it's ever been. And that'll be very strange. I imagine I won't be experiencing that for long."

Mechanics face a possible strike and the airline a possible bankruptcy. None of this looks good. And that is why Joe Wagner is going to class.