Tuesday, September 2, 2014
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NWA employees, preparing for the worst, support each others' side jobs

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Northwest Flight Attendant Sara Olson (with two of her three black labs) hopes developing her dog-sitting business will provide some financial support with paycuts and a possible strike looming. (MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)
On Tuesday, Northwest Airlines plans to ask a bankruptcy judge to toss out its labor contracts and allow the company to impose wage and job cuts on union workers. Unions are negotiating hard to avoid that, but any deal would include deep concessions. Union leaders have also floated the possibility of a strike that could put everyone's jobs on hold. Against this backdrop, some of the airline's Twin Cities employees are banding together to prepare to make it without a job at Northwest.

St. Paul Park, Minn. — Tom Perkins has loaded and unloaded luggage at Northwest for 25 years -- half his life. But if you want to see what else his hands can do, just take a look around his home in St. Paul Park.

"We could start in the kitchen," Perkins says, though you could start just about anywhere. "The laminate floors were done by me. Wood trim done by me, ceramic tile, new bathtub, new front door." The list continues as he makes he way through the house.

Perkins is still working his shifts for Northwest out on the ramp. He's headed out near the airport again today, to Bloomington, only this time it's to take a test for his independent contractor's license.

Over the years Perkins has done countless remodeling jobs for friends and family. But he started thinking seriously about making a living at it as things turned dire at the airline.

His union says Northwest's restructuring plan could cost thousands of jobs. Leaders have threatened a strike, which could conceivably cost all of them.

Northwest maintains its unions don't have the right to strike.

Perkins says it makes sense to plan for the worst. "You know, there's a lot of people who can lose their jobs," he says. "So these people are kind of wondering where to go and what to do. Well, what if we got together and did it together -- started a referral group for anybody that wanted to do something on their own, to stay in touch and refer jobs to each other?"

In recent weeks Perkins has gathered a list of about 20 Northwest employees, with enough collective talent to build a house: A concrete specialist, siding and window guys, painters, a carpet installer; one ramp worker who helped Perkins launch the list is a tree-trimmer; there's a mortgage broker, and a pilot who makes furniture.

The idea is for union members, or other supporters, to patronize each other and recommend each other to friends and neighbors who need work done.

The lone flight attendant on the list so far is Sara Olson, who is tapping her particular passion to offer a different type of service she is calling "Everything Dogs."

We're just trying to get people involved and get them listed now. In case we do go out on strike, it's going to be hard to get ahold of everybody.
- Tom Perkins

"I'll play with your dogs, walk your dogs, do whatever you want me to do with your dogs," she says. "I will be in and out, and of course stay in overnight. Not only do I dog-sit, but I'm home security."

For a fee, she is also willing to clean up yards of owners not so fond of that aspect of pet ownership.

The list has already led to one valuable referral for Olson. Another person on the list passed it to a local PetCo, where customers often ask about pet-sitters.

Olson isn't sure dog-sitting could replace her wages in case of a strike. But with flight attendants under a new 20 percent pay cut, and deeper cuts possible, she's looking to build up the business as much as she can to be financially prepared.

"That's why we're trying to get a group together of qualified, talented airline people, (to) try to make a go of it, try to make up for our pay cuts," she says of Tom Perkins' referral list.

Perkins says he is not averse to hooking up with a similar list Northwest's striking mechanics union maintains on its Web site. The Twin Cities local lists dozens of union members' businesses, from carpet cleaning to snowmobile repair to a mechanics' wife working as a Mary Kay beauty consultant.

Former mechanic Don Haugsby was among hundreds laid off in July, before the strike began. He and two other laid-off mechanics opened an auto repair shop in Lakeland. Haugsby says the shop has been on the referral list for a month, and it has paid off ten different times so far.

"Ten of the guys we used to work with, they were surprised that we were on the Web site," he says. "They gave us a call and we worked on their cars. We're all sort of a brotherhood, helping each other out."

Perkins, putting together the new list for workers still at Northwest, says he'll be working hard to expand it over the next few days. "We're just trying to get people involved and get them listed now. In case we do go out on strike, it's going to be hard to get ahold of everybody," he says.

Perkins and those on his list could know in a matter of days or weeks whether these talents and services they offer will remain a source of extra income on the side -- or become a financial lifeline.

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