Northwest Airlines' thumping of its mechanics union sent a clear message to other airline employees. And it wasn't: Submit to our demands or we'll crush you, said pilots union leader Mark McClain.
It was: Unions better hang together or they'll hang separately.
"We're here today to come together as a unified labor force,'' McClain told Northwest workers at a union solidarity rally Wednesday in Bloomington. "We saw what happened with a go-it-alone strategy."
McClain and leaders of the flight attendant and ground worker unions, along with some 400 to 500 workers railed about Northwest's push to outsource thousands of jobs.
Notably absent, though, were leaders of the striking mechanics union. They apparently were not invited.
Union leaders at the rally promised to work together to fight Northwest's outsourcing drive and insisted the airline could provoke more strikes if it doesn't back off its demands.
"There's no sense saving Northwest if we can't save our jobs,'' said McClain.
Standing before a banner proclaiming, "Don't Outsource My Airline's Future,'' Bobby De Pace, leader of the ground workers union, declared, "We will stick together as long as we can to save our jobs."
If Northwest pushes his members too far, they'll strike, vowed De Pace in later remarks to the media.
"The job won't be worth it,'' he said. "We have people who were making $8.34 an hour who took a 19 percent wage cut."
Doug Moe, vice president of the flight attendants union, declared that the airline's "push for too much" is putting the company in jeopardy.
Since the start of 2001, Eagan-based Northwest has lost more than $3 billion — and cut some 17,500 jobs.
The airline, which is reorganizing in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, now wants the right to send some 9,000 jobs to new subsidiaries and outside firms offering lower wages and fewer benefits than Northwest, union leaders say.
Northwest also is intent on slashing the wages of many in-house workers by 20 percent or more.
After a nearly three-year campaign, the airline is making its final push to wrest huge labor savings from workers and define their roles. With a mix of recently negotiated and court- and company-imposed deals, Northwest has more than 60 percent of the $1.4 billion in annual labor cost cuts it wants.
Northwest, in a statement Wednesday, said it needs the cost cuts it is seeking to remain competitive in an industry rife with discount carriers.
If it can't talk its three biggest unions into contracts that give it the rest of the savings by mid-January, Northwest has said it will ask a bankruptcy judge to impose contracts on those unions. Northwest argues its unions can't legally strike if the judge sets working terms.
When Northwest's mechanics struck the airline in August, they got little support from the airline's other unions, whose members crossed the strikers' picket lines.
But the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association had pursued a lone-wolf approach in its confrontations with management and dealings with other unions. It had grown by taking members away from other unions.
And McClain said the pilots feared that backing the AMFA strike would have pushed Northwest into bankruptcy. As it turned out, the airline went into bankruptcy about a month after the strike.
Northwest has outsourced most of the jobs of the some 1,000 cleaners and custodians and 3,100 mechanics that struck. The carrier now keeps only 880 mechanics on its payroll.
Still, a strike is a viable weapon for Northwest's other unions, particularly the pilots, said McClain. A strike could put Northwest out of business and cost all of its 36,000 remaining employees their jobs. But that risk may be worth taking, he said.
"It's kind of a murder-suicide situation," said McClain. "But if management can't moderate its goals, we have no incentive to save the airline."
It's harder to replace striking pilots and flight attendants than it is to replace mechanics, said Bob Krabbe, assistant contract administrator for the flight attendants union.
"You have to have them on board the aircraft and have them trained and ready to go," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story. Martin J. Moylan can be reached at email@example.com or 651- 228-5479.
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