Good Plan . . . Bad Timing: Northwest vs. AMFA

Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, American, America West, Continental, Delta, Federal Aviation Administration, JetBlue, National Transportation Safety Board, Northwest, Southwest, US Air Info: Stephen Prentice takes a look at the recent...

A Union-Busting Plan

The mechanics at NWA saw the writing on the wall. They never really had an opportunity to bargain. They had no choice but to strike. The company would lay off more than half of the staff, reduce benefits and salary for the remainder, and outsource what work could not be done in house. You can’t bargain with this plan of action. NWA saw the strike coming and prepared for it. A year and a half before the strike it quietly started hiring replacements and trained them for many months in secret. This can only mean one thing, it is out to break the union. One can only wonder what the training was like. Was there any oversight by FAA principal maintenance inspectors? Were manuals reviewed? Trainees were lodged in the Hyatt Regency and when the strike came they were bused where they were needed. Reports say they have 1,900 replacements for the 4,430 mechanics on strike. Sure they were scabs but they were men who say they were desperate for work so they did not mind crossing the line. They knew that most would not be offered permanent jobs but what the heck they said, a job’s a job. The 1,900 replacements were hired for the strike which started on Aug. 20. The company claims they are supplemented by 350 management mechanics and that it is shifting more work to outside vendors. NWA has many older aircraft that require close attention because of their age. Time will tell …

Meanwhile, reports say that FAA oversight of the maintenance situation is not adequate since the strike started. The recent report said that 470 inspector reports have somehow failed to get into the FAA NWA database. The majority of these reports cited maintenance defects. This left the maintenance situation appearing better than it might actually be. This is frightening news when all the maintenance is being done by temporary workers. One can only wonder about the deferred maintenance items on each aircraft and how serious they are. Are FAA inspectors aiding and abetting company slip-shod maintenance by not doing their job?

Outsourcing may present other problems. There may be some short-term benefits but in the long run looking for the lowest cost bidder for their maintenance work may well come back to haunt them. John Goglia, former NTSB member, speaking of outsourcing, explains that most of the fleets today are newer planes with better designs for more reliability and fewer accidents. But this “safety bump” as he calls it, will diminish as the planes age and need more intensive dedicated professional upkeep.

NWA Planning

NWA has stated that the bankruptcy filing had no connection to the mechanics strike. I can believe that. It was not concerned one way or the other if the mechanics went on strike. It knew bankruptcy would come before a strike could have a telling effect. It could care less. There was no doubt about filing bankrupcy for NWA or Delta. NWA knew during its long bargaining that it had no intention of reaching a settlement. It was just going through the motions. It knew it would soon file bankruptcy. So why settle? It also knew it could withstand a strike for a brief period of time if it planned for it. Talk about bargaining in bad faith. Many think it may have violated the law, if not in fact, certainly in principle.

Railway Labor Act Effect

AMFA could not strike before the runout of the contract negotiation period and the cooling-off period prescribed by the rules of the Railway Labor Act (RLA) which controls all airline labor union negotiations. The union was between a rock and a hard place and could not effectively do anything about it because of the rules of the RLA. Of course NWA had this figured out in advance. NWA had to have been planning the bankruptcy for a long time in spite of its pious statements to the contrary. It had to have its lawyers set the thing in motion more than a year ago, probably at about the same time it began hiring replacements. It takes a lot of planning before a bankruptcy is filed. Furthermore, it had to file before Oct. 17, 2005 when the new bankruptcy law went into effect. Keep in mind that the key to getting rid of a union and any legacy defined retirement benefit plan is bankruptcy, pushing the program into the hands of the government’s Pension Benefit (reduction) Guarantee Corporation (PBGC).

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