Tuesday, October 15, 2019
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Mechanics struggle to find sympathetic colleagues at Northwest
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Clerical workers at the University of Minnesota turned out at a rally in support of a Northwest Airlines union at the Capitol on Tuesday. (MPR Photo/Annie Baxter)
At a rally at the state Capitol on Tuesday, several labor groups from around the state turned out in a show of support for the mechanics union, which is threatening a strike next week. But the turnout from other Northwest unions was less robust.

St. Paul, Minn. — Labor leaders representing groups such as bus drivers and hotel workers chanted and waved signs at the rally. Macalester College history professor Peter Rachleff emceed the event, and drew frequent comparisons between the mechanics union and the other groups' labor issues.

The president of the AMFA's Twin Cities local, Ted Ludwig, said the turnout of other unions demonstrated support for a bigger cause.

"This isn't about the mechanics of Northwest Airlines or our union, this is about labor. Labor in Minnesota is really strong, and we're about to take a bad hit. If we don't fight back, the labor movement will have shrunk, and we cannot allow that," Ludwig said.

Northwest declined to comment on the rally. The company wants deep cuts in the total number of mechanics and their pay. After losing billions of dollars in recent years, the company is also seeking concessions from other labor groups as it tries to reduce its total labor costs.

But it's unclear how much support the mechanics will get on the picket line from those other Northwest labor groups, should a strike occur.

The Professional Flight Attendants Association, which represents Northwest flight attendants, is conducting a vote of its members on whether they'll wage a sympathy strike. The results will be released by the end of the cooling-off period between Northwest and the mechanics union in nine days.

Northwest maintains the flight attendants have to continue working if the mechanics strike. Other unions have said they won't reveal their plans until a strike occurs.

At the rally the flight attendants union president, Guy Meek, pledged his union's support for the mechanics.

"All of us are standing behind all of labor as it faces the risk of losing benefits, work rules and retirement that it's taken over 30 years to negotiate," Meek said.

Several speakers expressed concerns about Northwest's plans to use replacement workers in the event of a strike. Kip Hedges was among them. Hedges is a member of Northwest's largest union -- the IAM -- which represents ground workers. He says replacement workers -- or scabs, as he called them -- will descend on Northwest if the mechanics don't get support from other unions.

"And we will have lost every single bit of leverage we had versus the company because we didn't support you. And that's a problem. That's a big, big problem," Hedges said.

Hedges' fiery rhetoric didn't obscure the fact that none of his union's top leaders attended the event, even though it was billed as a rally for unity among unions.

In fact, a war of words is currently underway between the mechanics and the IAM. Top IAM officials accuse the mechanics union of encouraging Northwest to demand deeper concessions from the IAM. That would reduce the hit mechanics have to take.

AMFA's assistant national director, Steve MacFarlane, has called such accusations "blatant lies."

Leaders of Northwest's most powerful labor group, the pilots union, have also traded barbs with the mechanics union lately. Pilots union leaders were absent the rally.

The ambiguous support of other Northwest unions may be an extra incentive for mechanics to avert a strike and continue their negotiations with the airline. And further talks do seem to be what AMFA's Ted Ludwig wants, given his reaction to news that talks will continue.

"We're going to have talks next week? That's very good. That's a step in the right direction. That's a great surprise, actually," Ludwig said.

Northwest also welcomed the new round of talks. The company has offered repeated assurances it will operate a full schedule in the event of a strike. But in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company now says there can be no assurances that will be the case.

The company also said a strike could greatly affect the airline's financial stability and even hasten its descent into Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

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