Tuesday, December 6, 2022
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Flash presentation: A chronology
The state of the strike (story audio)


The state of the strike

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The picket line is still a fixture at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, though the pool of available mechanics shrinks as more of them get new jobs. (MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)
Three months after it began, some observers argue the Northwest Airlines mechanics strike is effectively over. Technically, the strike continues; most members of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association have not returned to work, and some travelers still refuse to cross the picket line. But since the strike began in August, Northwest has continued flying its schedule. And the company has filled all of its mechanics jobs with permanent replacements.

St. Paul, Minn. — For Sondra, who lives in the Twin Cities, the Northwest mechanics strike ended this month, the day her husband went back to work at Northwest. Sondra asked MPR not to use her last name -- out of fear of retaliation from either the company or AMFA, the union.

"I read the AMFA website every day, I was behind the union and thought, 'that's the only way we have a leg to stand on.' But I changed my mind," said Sondra, whose husband joined at least 135 union mechanics in crossing the picket line and returning to work.

In more than two months on strike, she says the best work her husband could find was driving a city bus; the pay barely covered their mortgage payments. Sondra is recovering from a serious illness, but the strike meant no health insurance. The household stress was so great her young daughter was pulling out her hair.

Sondra says when her husband crossed the picket line and went back to work, it set things right. "I have my husband back," she said. "He has confidence, he laughs with our children, he helps with homework. He's not so stressed out he can only think, 'How will I provide for my family?'"

Sondra cites one of the ugliest fights in Minnesota labor history in arguing the strike has ended -- not just for her, but for the union. "It's done. It's Hormel. They've been replaced. We're moving on. The (union) web site can stay active, and they can have all the rallies they like," she said.

At a rally this month, mechanics union leaders set out to show the strike is very much alive, and do their best to keep it that way. Joe Prisco, president of the AMFA local in San Francisco, asked hundreds of mechanics, family members and supporters in the Bloomington high school auditorium whether they were "ready to fight." The resounding crowd response was, "Damn right!"

"Don't give up," Prisco said. "The press is going to come after us and say that we can't win this strike, or the strike is over. Don't pay attention to it. Because in the last analysis, all that matters is whether we stick together."

Beneath the pep talk, the underlying message from union leaders has changed as the strike has drawn on. AMFA leaders now concede there is little chance of union members regaining their jobs at Northwest. The leadership says the strike is now a matter of principle -- and they imply, to some degree, martyrdom for the cause of organized labor.

AMFA leaders see the union's legacy as two-fold: first, as a casualty of the growing American trend of outsourcing. Second, as the mechanics see it, Northwest adopted a take-it-or-leave-it position in contract talks, saying bankruptcy was the only alternative to meeting the company's demands for job and wage cuts. They say Northwest's success with the tactic means unions elsewhere will face it.

Northwest declined an interview for this story, saying it has no plans for additional talks with AMFA and questions about the strike are most appropriate for the union.

AMFA leaders say their precedent should scare some fight into organized labor in the U.S. They often bring up Delphi Corporation, a Michigan auto parts company now playing hardball with its unions in bankruptcy.

AMFA founder and National Director O.V. Del Femine told the crowd that organized labor must rally to their cause. "For labor to regain the power we earned in this country, the power we deserve, the disunity amongst the unions must stop or the corporations will pick us off one at a time," he said.

To raise the national profile of its message, AMFA has hired Ray Rogers, a controversial but attention-grabbing labor consultant. And Del Femine is calling for a nationwide work stoppage. "Advertisements and letters will be going out to other unions," Del Femine said. "I'll get back to you concerning their responses."

Del Femine will probably not like the response from Ray Waldron, president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO. AMFA is not a member of the federation.

"Nothing we can do for them now," Waldron said. "We can put the body in a bag and try to find its rightful owner. But there's nothing we can do for them today. It's over."

Waldron still remembers when Del Femine snubbed his lunch invitation in 1998. AMFA had just won representation of mechanics at Northwest, after a bitter fight with an AFL-CIO affiliated union. AFL-CIO leaders have railed against AMFA's tactic of raiding members from unions in the federation.

Waldron says in its years at Northwest, AMFA never reached out -- not until a letter asking for help arrived on his desk after the strike had begun. By that point, it was too little too late. "This union says, 'It's the world against us, it's other unions, business, companies, and it's all against us. And we're taking on the world,'" Waldron said. "Well, they took 'em on."

Waldron says he is deeply concerned about the issues AMFA raises, including outsourcing and the threat posed to labor by the bankruptcy process. But he says AMFA's origins and go-it-alone attitude trampled basic principles of solidarity.

While the AFL-CIO seems unlikely to ride to the rescue, the federation is not a monolith in the labor movement. That's even more true since the AFL-CIO split this summer, with five breakaway unions forming the Change to Win Coalition. The coalition includes major unions like the Teamsters, Service Employees International Union, and United Food and Commercial Workers. The coalition launched its Minnesota chapter with a pledge to support the mechanics, stating that their situation "will have dire consequences for all unions."

And three months into the strike, some members of unions and other supporters still refuse to give the airline their business.

"Both my husband and I have taken a couple of trips since the strike. We've taken other airlines, and we plan to continue to do that," said Minneapolis psychotherapist Barbara Greenspon. She acknowledges that "the union is busted." But she says that's the point.

"I know plenty of people who feel like I do, fly way more than we fly, and are not using Northwest," she said.

For others, their commitment to shun the airline is wearing thin. Anne Bier lives in Virginia, Minnesota, where honoring the picket line means a long drive to the Twin Cities to get on another airline. She has done that since the strike began. But now she's not sure it's worth the inconvenience. "I'd rather not fly Northwest, but I think pretty much the strike is over," Bier said.

In October, 83 percent of Northwest's seats were full. That's a historically high number, and a sign that most consumers are not letting the strike affect their travel plans.

Brad Godin could tell you that, just from watching the cars pass him at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. The Northwest mechanic of 23 years still shows up for picket duty every four days, even though he's looking for a new job.

"Overwhelmingly we have pretty good reaction from people driving up," Godin said from his spot on the curb outside the Lindbergh Terminal. "On the other hand, the people driving by waving and honking and stuff pull up at the Northwest doors, head in and grab a flight."

Godin stands with Jim Hallamek and Steve Gross. These guys still believe in the strike. But they're also going to school or looking for new work -- one reason the number of mechanics available for picket duty is getting smaller.

"A lot of people have already gotten jobs," said Hallamek. "I keep putting in applications, a few interviews here or there, nothing firm yet. If I had a job I'd adjust my picketing time or just withdraw and move on with my life."

"Who knows where this is going to take us in the end?" added Gross. "Just keep showing up every day until I find a job or the strike's over."

The law sets no limit on how long a strike can last. AMFA technically continues to represent all mechanics at Northwest, though replacement mechanics don't have to participate or pay dues. It's a situation that could persist for some time. AMFA leaders now say it's time they intend to use to help their cautionary tale sink in.