Northwest Mechanic's Union Flags Crossing Strikers

Northwest Airlines mechanic David Smith last week noticed that he officially made his way onto his striking union's "Wall of Shame."

That's the Internet site listing the names of mechanics who've crossed the picket line — scabs, in union parlance. It's a growing list, indicative of the union's growing weakness in a labor dispute now in its 12th week.

"The strike has basically failed. If you put up a picket line and people cross it, and you are not stopping the operations, it's a failure," said John Clarke, a Washington, D.C., based labor attorney who represents railway and airline unions.

Northwest's 4,400 mechanics, cleaners and custodians walked off the job Aug. 19, refusing the air carrier's offer to work for lower wages, reduced benefits and no job protection.

Follow-up talks failed to reach an agreement, and the union scrapped plans to put a company offer to a vote that would have returned some 500 mechanics to work, saying a last-minute provision inserted by Northwest limited the union's role in handling disputes between members.

The carrier now says it has permanently replaced all of the mechanics who walked out in the Twin Cities, and nearly all of the 880 it needs at its hubs here and in Detroit.

By the union's estimation, about 150 strikers have crossed the picket line and gone back to work in the face of a strike not honored by other unions. Northwest declined to give a specific number, but said it was "significant."

Smith was one of them. "The union never paid my wages," said the 41-year old Minnetonka resident. "The company always did, so I was always loyal to the company. I just want to stay out of the battle."

Though the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association continues to represent the mechanics at seven other airlines, including United and Southwest, it appears to be all but dead at Northwest. While the carrier, which is operating under bankruptcy protection, continues to recognize AMFA as the official bargaining unit for its mechanics, it doesn't require the new work force to join the union or pay dues.

"Their leverage at this point is minimal," said Richard Hurd, a professor of labor studies at Cornell University. "In essence, the union's situation is very bleak."

Though many striking mechanics remain faithful to their union, momentum is flagging among the ranks. As strikers find other jobs outside of Northwest, union officials have cut back on picket locations and reduced picket-duty schedules.

Even so, Steve MacFarlane, the union's assistant national director, insists the strike is far from over. "Our members are going to be the ones to decide when the strike ends," he said. Further, he argues the walkout is effective.

He points to a report from the U.S. Department of Transportation issued last week that shows that in September Northwest finished last in its on-time performance when compared with the nation's airlines. "They are not only dead last," MacFarlane said. "They are dead last with a margin."

Passengers aren't staying away, however. Northwest's planes were more full in October than they were during the same month a year ago. (The airline's passenger count dropped 6.2 percent, to 4.4 million, reflecting a reduced schedule.)

Union officials, meanwhile, continue to try to keep safety issues before the public. A recent press release claimed two former union members who returned to work quit their jobs over safety concerns. The individuals did not discuss their concerns with Northwest, the carrier said, adding, "We remain confident in the safety of our operation."

At the request of Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., the Federal Aviation Administration is investigating allegations by one of its inspectors regarding safety oversight at Northwest. The Department of Transportation's Office of Inspector General continues to monitor the FAA's investigation.

Meanwhile, some mechanics continue picket duties.

Mike Lutz, 41, a 15-year Northwest mechanic who lives in Robbinsdale, was on the picket line the first full day of the strike. But in early September, he got a job working in his brother's warehouse. He also picked up work doing aircraft welding at a local airport. For a little while he kept up his picketing assignments. He's too busy now with his family and two jobs.

Early on, he decided not to cross the line. His resolve was tested. "After you see people go back, you know, I asked myself again if that was something I wanted to do. I decided I did not want to do that.

"Once you cross the picket line somewhere it tends to follow you for the rest of your life. I didn't want to have that attached to me."

So now preparations are under way to ready strike headquarters for the winter. Mike Klemm, the union's national strike coordinator, is looking for a new location, since the site they are on at is being sold. Then it's business as usual. The strike will "go on until my national director tells me to call it off," Klemm said.

"If that is 10 years down the road, I will still be out there, even if I have a full-time job."

As far-fetched as that may seem, it's not out of the question. "Strikes can go on for years," Clarke, the Washington labor attorney, said. In theory, that's true. There's no legal deadline.

A strike by the International Association of Machinists at the Italian airline Alitalia lasted more than six years, ending in 1999. A strike by IAM workers at Continental Airlines that was later joined by other unions, including the pilots, went on for a year and a half before ending in 1985. At Eastern Airlines, a strike by the IAM ended in 1991 after nearly two years.

Still, ongoing strikes have a way of petering out. Even an attorney for the mechanics union argued in an administrative hearing on unemployment benefits at the end of September that the mechanics strike was no longer in active progress. An unemployment law judge rejected that argument, concluding that the strike remained active until the dispute was officially resolved.

Julie Forster can be reached at jforster@pioneerpress.com or 651-228-5189.


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