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Family upheavals dot Northwest mechanics' picket lines
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Rommel Shumpert lives in Atlanta, but works in Minneapolis since Northwest dissolved his unit in Atlanta three years ago. He flies back to Atlanta, where his wife lives, twice a month. (MPR Photo/Art Hughes)
Striking airline mechanics have dug in their heels for a long fight as their strike against Northwest Airlines starts its second week. Many of the mechanics say they're prepared emotionally and financially for a protracted walkout. At the same time the thought of finding another job if the strike ultimately goes sour remains a nagging concern.

Eagan, Minn. — A red-tailed hawk circled above the Eagan Industrial Park where Rommel Shumpert picketed a service entrance leading to Northwest Airlines' corporate headquarters. The red-tailed Northwest planes taking off from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport also flew overhead. Their roaring engines interrupted conversations but couldn't attract even a passing glance from Shumpert.

"We have a lot of guys who have the commitment to do quality work and we want to get back to do that work. And we have a management staff that seems to think we're replaceable," Shumpert says.

Shumpert claims to have worked on every DC-9 in Northwest's fleet in his 28 years with the company. In fact he worked for Northwest long before it was named Northwest. The avionics technician installs and repairs radios and other electronics on the planes.

Shumpert lives in Atlanta, but works in Minneapolis since Northwest dissolved his unit in Atlanta three years ago. He flies back to Atlanta, where his wife lives, twice a month. "I don't know if we hammer out the agreement if I can afford to live up here on that with the commuting and everything," he says. "So even if we come to an agreement I may find out the finances wouldn't allow me to do that and I may have to leave the company anyway."

It's not just about the money, Shumpert says. He has a passion for working on planes.

"I couldn't be a pilot. I always wanted to be a pilot someday but circumstances didn't happen and money-wise and everything. I said if I can't fly them, I'll fix them. Everybody finds out they have a little talent with something."

If the strike drags on more than a month or so. Shumpert says he'll return to Atlanta and do anything and everything necessary to pay the bills. He says he may have to go outside the industry because the aviation job market in Atlanta is so slow.

Another striking mechanic, Stan Martin, also wonders how long he can last before he has to admit his 26-year career with Northwest is over.

"If this thing goes on too many months then obviously I'll be seeking a replacement employer," Martin says.

Martin is a lead technician working mostly with Airbus 319s and 320s and Boeing 757s. He coordinates and schedules maintenance and repairs to make sure his crews don't hang up waiting for a system diagram or a key part.

Martin has taken out a line of credit against his mortgage to make sure his bills are covered. His wife is looking into turning her part-time job into a full-time job. He's taken his daughter out of daycare to save some money. He cares for her on the days he's not on the picket line.

"I don't know if it's long enough to go stir crazy yet. But my emotions go the whole gamut. A lot of times I get really angry. A lot of times I'm almost relieved because it's been a long time building up to this; get it over with, let's get out of here," he says.

Under Northwest's contract offer Martin's $75,000 a year salary would be cut to about $50,000. It's still good pay; he knows that. But he thinks with his skills and experience he can get at least that much elsewhere with a better chance of advancing. "I figure I'll take the pay cut from me first. I'll run my mortgage up and then just work it back down again if I work elsewhere or if I get back in rather than take it as a permanent cut," he says.

The union rejected Northwest's attempts at job cuts, increased outsourcing, and a 26-percent pay cut from the mechanics in order to save $176 million a year the company says it needs to stay afloat.

Like many of his collegues, Martin says he will never consider crossing the picket line. He also says he'd rather leave the industry than work for one of the companies Northwest plans to use to outsource the work previously done by the union mechanics.

Back on the picket line at airline headquarters, striker Rommel Shumpert ponders whether the work he knows and loves is still viable in the current economic environment.

"Maybe we might be expendable. That's kind of in the people's and the public's hands now. And if truly in fact we are replacable then that's a sacrifice we have to make for our passion...."

The possibility of bankruptcy for the airline and pending renegotiations with other Northwest unions leaves little for Shumpert to be optimistic about.