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Union Struggles at Northwest Airlines
The battle being waged at Northwest Airlines (NWA) by the independent Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA) and its supporters started with a strike on August 20. Northwests management has put pressure on the 4,400 strikers, pushing demands as the weeks progress towards what a company spokesperson called, a permanent solution for that segment of the workforce.
Talks broke down September 11 after NWA pushed a proposal that AMFA Local 5 member Curt Booza characterized as an attempt to completely eliminate us from the property. NWA began moves to permanently replace strikers on September 13. Shifting from its original proposal to cut over half of its 4,400 AMFA jobs (including all of the lower-paid cleaner jobs that employ a greater percentage of women and people of color), NWA then demanded a 75 percent job reduction.
Highlighting fears that larger givebacks would spread beyond the mechanics union, AMFA negotiator Jeff Mathews observed that NWA had raised its goal for wage and benefit concessions for all its unions from $1.1 billion to $1.4 billion. According to Mathews, Some groups, including the IAM [International Association of Machinists], may be asked to shoulder a disproportionately larger share of the new target amount. Despite mounting pressure, morale remains high. A month into the strike, only ten AMFA members had crossed the lines. In places where AMFA locals are active and cross-union support was organized, rallies, fundraisers, and other actions have kept spirits relatively up.
Hearts and Minds
In other unions, sharp divisions have developed over the strike, pitting irate rank and filers and local officers against international leaders who have either refused to endorse or actively undermined strike support efforts. Cross-union solidarity efforts in Detroit, Minneapolis, and San Francisco have run into such resistance. In the lead-up to the strike deadline, local labor bodies were explicitly ordered by the AFL-CIO not to participate in any efforts to assist strikers. In an August 15 memo, AFL-CIO Collective Bargaining Department Director Rick Bank ordered state federations and central labor councils not to organize or support boycotts, food banks, relief funds, or turnout at AMFA picket lines or rallies without the permission of the national AFL-CIO. Local bodies were further told that they have no power or authority to instruct affiliates to honor picket lines. All requests to honor pickets were to be referred to the two AFL-CIO unions still working at NWA: the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) and the Machinists union (IAM).
Alarmed by what they see as a potential major defeat for the labor movement, many unionists have been backing the strike despite the ban. While some hold criticisms of AMFA as a craft-oriented union with a history of decertification battles with AFL-CIO unions, many of these critics also maintain that the stakes are high enough to warrant throwing support behind the strikers.
They point to the use of permanent replacements (which havent been seen in airlines since the 1989 Eastern Airlines strike), the deteriorating situation for all airline unions since 9/11, and the recent AFL-CIO split as reasons to support the strike. If we dont [get behind the strikers], it shows that we havent learned a lesson from PATCO and on, said Al Benchich, president of UAW Local 909 and co-chair of Southeast Michigan Jobs with Justice. If we dont stand together, were going to fall as individuals.
In a boost for the strikers, the UAW International donated $880,000 from its strike fund. UAW President Ron Gettelfinger said, Northwest Airlines behavior toward AMFA is blatant union busting and an insult to every American worker. The UAW is proud to offer this support to AMFA members.
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union, the Aircraft Engineers International, the Professional Airways Systems Specialists (the union that represents FAA inspectors), the newly-formed Minnesota Change to Win Coalition (state affiliates of SEIU, Teamsters, UFCW, UNITE HERE, Laborers, and the Carpenters), four central labor councils (in Michigan, California, and Oregon), and a number of UAW locals have announced support for the strikers. Additionally, UNITE HERE and Steelworkers District 2 have stopped flying Northwest.
IBEW International leaders intervened the day before the fund- raiser, demanding that the local lock its doors for the weekend. Organizers scrambled to reschedule, moving the event to two local bars that had been used as support bases during the newspaper strike. Despite IBEWs interference, over 150 local activists attended and $3,900 was raised. Strikers also took their message to Labor Day events. UAW Region 1-A invited hundreds of AMFA Local 5 members and their families to march in its contingent in Detroits Labor Day march. Marching UAW, AFSCME, SEIU, NALC, APWU, and CWA members gave a warm response to strike supporters handing out leaflets and collecting money around a sound truck parked on the parade route.
Nearly 200 rallied in a symbolic picket at a local casino near the parades end, with signs saying, Dont Gamble with NWA. AMFA Local 5 President Bob Rose called the Labor Day action a shot in the arm.
Besides building outside support, strikers have been trying to broaden their fight from the well-controlled airport picket lines. A group of 20 Local 5 members drove to the CSX railyard in Toledo and set up pickets on September 6. Ninety-five percent of the yards Detroit-bound freight traffic was snarled after Teamster engineers and rail workers refused to cross the picket. Teamsters returned to work only after CSX won a court order on September 8 that mandated that they cross the line. AMFA members traveled to the Jobs with Justice conference and the Change to Win convention in St. Louis at the end of September to network and rally labor activists and leaders to their cause.
Although NWA has consistently claimed that the strike has not affected its operations, the airline filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy (along with another major carrier, Delta) on September 14. Rising fuel costs (spiked by Hurricane Katrina) and the effects of the strike (sliding on-time flight performance, declining ticket revenues, and the $101 million price tag for NWAs union-busting strategy) led to losses estimated at $350-400 million in the third quarter.
Bankruptcy is a wild card for the strikers. U.S. Air and United were able to use bankruptcy courts to force open contracts and extract hundreds of millions of dollars in concessions. AMFA leaders, however, see little to lose in the courts.
With the bankruptcy, strikers see the potential for a larger fight that would pull in other unions as NWA pushes even harder for concessions. If one or more of the unions representing flight attendants, pilots, or ramp and gate agents are drawn in, there is the chance that they may end up on the picket lines themselves. A broader strike involving flight crews could raise pressure on the company by grounding many of its flights. Commenting on the need for urgent action, the Airline Workers News Service wrote: Time is running out. If union members in the [Professional Flight Attendant Association] and IAM do not act soon to aid mechanics, cleaners and custodians, Northwest will simply dictate terms and destroy unions, contracts, and livelihoods. The question is: will these unions act and will it be enough?
Chris Kutalik is currently co-editor of Labor Notes in Detroit. He was also a local officer in Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1549 in Austin, Texas.
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LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in NYC.
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