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ISSUE 119 VOL 1 PUBLISHED 9/16/2005

Strike bodes ill for unions

By Peter Farrell
Contributing Writer

Friday, September 16, 2005

As a baggage handler this summer, I had a prime vantage point of the far-east side of the Lindbergh Terminal to watch the escalating contract conflict between the Aircraft Mechanic Fraternal Association (AMFA) and Northwest Airlines. By Aug. 20, the conflict was irreconcilable for the 4,400 mechanics and custodians that make up AMFA; the first major airline strike in seven years shifted from threat to reality. The implications for organized labor are frightening. Northwest Airlines’ swift, spin-savvy response to the AMFA strike sets a dangerous precedent for all unionized employees in the airline industry. It’s AMFA today, but every other union tomorrow.

The media has wrongly portrayed AMFA as a “rogue” union. Since its inception in 1962, AMFA has made few friends in the labor world, but occupies a necessary niche in contract politics. The union made a name for itself with a take-no-prisoners approach to contract renegotiations with management. The AFL-CIO, the country’s largest labor collective, has often accused AMFA of pilfering the ranks of its International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) by making unrealistic promises to disgruntled mechanics.

Certainly, AMFA did well for itself in labor talks. The union’s adamant stance against concessionary negotiation tactics resulted in a notable victory during a time when airline labor victories were few and far between: Northwest mechanics, cleaners and custodians became the best paid in the business.

That said, the sharp drop in airline profitability within the past sixteen years – eight major “legacy” airlines have filed for bankruptcy since 1989 – has left labor in a perpetually precarious position. Northwest Airlines, saddled with one of the oldest, fuel-guzzling fleets in the nation, is now losing close to $4 million a day. That sum is going up with the skyrocketing cost of fuel, too. Northwest management estimated that the airline needed to cut close to $1.1 billion in labor costs to stay afloat. That meant asking AMFA to cut its workforce in half and decrease salaries by 25 percent in order to save close to $176 million for the 2005 fiscal year. When AMFA’s counterproposal – an offer which would have saved the airline close to $140 million – revealed Northwest’s position to be inflexible, the union had no choice but to strike.

As we approach the 25th day of the strike, the true motivations of Northwest’s management at the negotiating table are more and more apparent. Northwest never intended to consider AMFA’s counterproposal. Instead, Northwest always intended to unveil a gutsy strategy for combating the strike. The airline had prepared for the strike over the past 18 months by spending close to $100 million training 1,200 replacement workers.

Taking its cue from smaller, discount airlines like JetBlue and Sun Country, Northwest has lowered overhead costs considerably and stayed in the air with minimal difficulty. The aggressive strategy – contingent upon the preparation of the replacement workers – caught everyone by surprise. Northwest has experienced few, if any, of the meltdowns predicted by the airline’s mechanics.

Now, the replacement workers, intended to bully AMFA to comply with additional concessionary demands (demands that now call for the loss of an additional 400 workers), began working permanently Tuesday. AMFA employees will now only be given jobs if they start crossing picket lines, a situation made tenable by a 1989 Supreme Court ruling granting airlines the right to shut out returning strikers.

The rest of the airline industry is taking notice. Mechanics, once thought irreplaceable, now face the prospect of becoming a disposable commodity. A surplus of qualified mechanics laid off in the previous four years gives the airlines an unprecedented opportunity to hire competent replacements more than willing to cross another union’s picket lines. As other old-line “legacy” airlines with high labor costs like Delta prepare to renegotiate contracts, the new Northwest management method – squeezing out union strength by investing in replacement workers – may become the industry norm.

Of the 559,000 jobs provided by airlines, almost half belong to unions. Flight attendants, pilots, and yes – even lowly baggage handlers – stand to lose significant ground in the coming years as major airlines continue to founder. With the AFL-CIO split into warring factions, and the unions supplying AMFA with their “comeuppance” by displaying no strength or solidarity with the striking workers, dark times loom on the horizon for the American worker.

Variety editor Peter Farrell is a sophomore from Eden Prarie, Minn. He majors in English and history.

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