July 22, 2005
St. Paul, Minn. — Bobby De Pace heads the biggest union at Northwest, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, or IAM. The IAM represents bag handlers, reservation clerks, and other ground workers.
He says his union is waiting to see if the mechanics union strikes before deciding if they'll refuse to work as well.
But De Pace admits it's unlikely. He says the IAM has different interests than the mechanics. IAM members are still waiting for a $216 million-payback from Northwest for concessions the union made more than a decade ago.
"There's a lot that we have at stake," De Pace says. "Because if Northwest goes bankrupt we lose that $216 million," says De Pace. "And there are people -- our members -- who have [as much as] $30,000, and they want their money. So we are going to avoid bankruptcy at every turn that we can."
De Pace's union used to represent the mechanics until they split off six years ago to join the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, or AMFA.
"So, it's not so much like we hate each other, or anything," De Pace says. "I mean don't get me wrong, there's no love lost between us and AMFA. It's bigger than that. It's people's jobs. People's livelihood. If this was like 15, 20 years ago, people wouldn't care. But not these days in the airline industry."
Northwest is trying to cut its annual labor costs by more than a billion dollars to bring an end to losses totalling about $3 billion over four years.
The airline wants to lay off more than half of the mechanics workforce and cut the remaining workers' salaries by 25 percent. Northwest is asking other unions for concessions, as well.
AMFA officials predict they will get support from members of other Northwest unions and labor groups elsewhere.
But officially, Northwest's two other major unions say they won't decide whether to honor a mechanics union picket line until a strike has begun.
The pilots union has traded jabs with the mechanics union over the need for concessions.
The flight attendants union has expressed the strongest support for mechanics. But a spokesman says in order to strike in sympathy, flight attendants would need to approve that course of action in a vote.
Division among airline unions is typical, according to Associate Professor Bob Bruno from the University of Illinois's Institute of Industrial relations and labor. He says the mechanics union alone would have a hard time grounding the airline. For that, he says they would need the pilots union to refuse to work also, and that would be unlikely.
"It would be an uncommon act of militancy in an industry where unions cooperate very little and have very little centralized leverage," Bruno says.
He says the flight attendants are the most likely to refuse to work.
But Professor John Budd from the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management says other unions probably won't make the difference.
"Lots of unions have various restrictions in terms of not being able to cross picket lines," Budd says. "So, there's lots of different strikes where unions give all kinds of moral support but still fail to respect picket lines. So I think the key variable here is really going to be the consumer."
One of the big question marks facing Northwest and the mechanics is whether travelers avoid the airline because of the possibility of disruptions caused by a strike.
Northwest says it has replacement workers and will operate a full schedule if there's a walkout. The union disputes that. Only two days into the 30-day countdown to a strike deadline, Budd says it's a little early for consumers to gauge what will happen. "When the countdown gets much closer to the end of 30 days then I think the consumers will have to face much more difficult decisions," Budd says.
Union workers may also face difficult decisions about whether to honor the mechanics picket line, if a strike happens.