Northwest Pickets Focus on New Target

Striking Northwest Airlines mechanics will picket Friday -- not in front of Duluth International Airport, but outside the Hermantown home of their former union president.

They intend to protest the defection of Ken Reed, who served as president of Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association Local 35 until late October. A couple of weeks ago, Reed crossed the picket line, taking a job repairing airplanes for Northwest in the Twin Cities.

Reed says he returned to Northwest reluctantly after he was unable to find other means to adequately support his family of four.

He's not the only local union leader AMFA members accuse of betrayal in their nearly five-month-old strike. Dennis Kaminski, former vice president of Local 35 and strike coordinator, also has drawn fire after agreeing to maintain ground equipment at Duluth International. It's work once performed by AMFA members.

Kaminski doesn't consider himself a scab, however. He stressed that he does not work directly for Northwest and would not do so. Instead, Kaminski started his own company, Quality Mechanical, which was hired by Monaco Air Duluth to maintain equipment that services Northwest.

The distinction is lost on some AMFA members.

"As far as I'm concerned, anyone that's doing any type of former union work for Northwest is betraying our cause," said Wes Haberger, a Duluth mechanic out of work after 32 years at the carrier. "In my opinion, Ken and Dennis belong in the same basket. And they're the worst sort of scabs because they were supposed to be leading our local."

It should be noted that neither Reed nor Kaminski were in office when they returned to work. AMFA Local 35 was rolled into Local 33, based in Bloomington, Minn., at the end of October, relieving Reed and Kaminski of their posts.

But some members of Local 35 still expected more from their former leaders.

"Their actions disgust me," said Randy Lehna, a striking mechanic out of work after about 20 years on the job at Northwest. "It's worse than a plain Joe going across the picket line. There's no excuse for it."

Reed said he had not wanted to cross the picket line but found the search for alternate work in the Northland extremely discouraging.

"After learning that I had worked at Northwest, one employment agency actually told me, 'You are not hirable in this city,' " Reed recalled. He said many prospective employers apparently feared striking aircraft mechanics would not prove to be loyal, long-term employees.

Initially, Reed said he couldn't fathom crossing the picket line, but as the strike dragged on, his attitude changed.

"If you talked to me in November, I would have told you there was no way I would do what I have done," Reed said. But by mid-December, with a fistful of job rejection letters in hand, Reed began to contemplate the once-unthinkable: returning to Northwest with the strike unresolved.

"It was the toughest decision I've ever made," Reed said. "It took a lot of thought, anguish and tears."

Reed knows his actions have upset some of his former co-workers but felt he had to do what was right for his family. He has encountered numerous other mechanics who crossed the picket line as well, and said the most frequent regret he hears from them is that they didn't return to work sooner.

For his part, Kaminski said, "I've got nothing to hide," adding that he sees nothing wrong in the work he's doing on ground equipment.

Kaminski said he has been getting only 20 to 30 hours of work weekly at the airport and is unable to afford health coverage for his family of five. After about five weeks on the job, Kaminski has yet to receive his first payment.

Randy Reents, a former AMFA Local 35 officer and mechanic, said he has more problems with Reed's actions than Kaminski's.

Mike Klemm, vice president of AMFA Local 33, said the union has documented 333 members who have crossed the picket line out of a membership of about 4,400. That amounts to a defection rate of less than 8 percent.

Northwest puts the figure a bit higher. Jennifer Bagdade, a spokeswoman for the carrier, said that in Detroit and the Twin Cities, Northwest has hired 280 would-be strikers, plus another 200 AMFA members who were on furlough at the time of the walkout. That total of 480 people would mean that nearly 11 percent of AMFA members have chosen to cross the picket line.

Reents said he knows of only three or four people who have crossed the picket line out of about 240 members who were working at Northwest's Duluth maintenance base before the strike.

"As a group, we've really held pretty strong up here," Reents said. But he acknowledged that enduring the strike has been a challenge.

"We can't get unemployment benefits or funds for retraining," he said. "It's a tough situation."

Reents has picked up work as a carpenter but said many mechanics have had trouble finding decent employment.

"We know it's a hopeless situation," said Bill Bailey, a mechanic and former union officer who has gone into taxidermy. "We're never going to get our jobs back at Northwest. They replaced us."

Duluth News Tribune

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