Airline Mechanics Union Sets up Shop in Aurora, Colo.

The office is spartan, as there's no art or other decoration on the walls.

Stacks of unopened boxes take up floor space in several rooms, and a receptionist isn't yet on the payroll.

But the national headquarters of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association is indeed up and running in its new Aurora home, having recently moved from the small resort town of Laconia, N.H.

During the past decade, AMFA has grown from a small union with a couple of hundred members into a labor organization that represents 13,000 mechanics, aircraft cleaners and custodians. Its members hail from more than half a dozen carriers, including United Airlines, Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines.

The organization in recent years has successfully negotiated new labor agreements with six airlines amid volatile industry conditions, including a deal last year that saved mechanic jobs and averted a strike at then-bankrupt United.

Yet AMFA also represents the nearly 4,500 mechanics, aircraft cleaners and other workers who walked off the job at Northwest Airlines a year ago to protest the company's move to cut positions. Most of those members remain on strike today, even though the bankrupt carrier has hired permanent replacements and contracted out the rest of the work.

Some critics dub the strike a colossal failure.

Steve MacFarlane disagrees.

The union's assistant national director says AMFA had no choice but to stand up to Northwest, which had already axed thousands of jobs and at one point wanted the right to cut nearly half of the remaining mechanic, cleaner and custodian positions.

"Anybody who really understood our strike knows that we did so because Northwest wanted to eliminate the majority of our jobs," said MacFarlane. "Even if we had accepted their proposal, the majority of guys were going to be looking for work anyway."

MacFarlane sat down with the Rocky Mountain News recently to discuss the union's move to Denver, its current focus and the Northwest strike.

News: Tell us about your background.

MacFarlane: I'm a striking Northwest mechanic as well as the assistant national director of AMFA. I've been an aircraft mechanic since 1979, having bounced around the industry since then.

News: AMFA recently ended its controversial relationship with an outside group that provided administrative services for the union. Did criticism over that relationship factor into the decision to bring the duties in-house?

MacFarlane: Not really. AMFA at one point only had 100 members. It makes no sense at all to get a building and hire staff and build infrastructure when you don't have the financial wherewithal to do that. As we grew, the balance shifted the other way.

News: Why did AMFA choose to move to the Denver area?

MacFarlane: It's in the middle of the country, so it's an easier trip for all of our officers. We also knew we could get quality, skilled people. And it's a nice place to live. Our contract with the outside group ended in July, so we felt it was time to move.

News: What are the union's biggest issues now?

MacFarlane: The strike at Northwest is paramount because of the ramifications it's had on our members. We're also spending a fair amount of our time researching how mergers or acquisitions would affect our members.

News: What were the reasons behind the decision to strike?

MacFarlane: We had offered Northwest everything they asked for, including the pay cut and the freezing of the pension plan. The one thing we had to have was the jobs, and they were unwilling to negotiate on that. It would have taken a majority of our own members to vote yes to eliminate their own jobs.

Editor's note: Northwest says one of its proposals would have protected 2,750 jobs. MacFarlane said the proposal only covered mechanics but not other AMFA-represented worker groups.

News: How have negotiations with other carriers fared?

MacFarlane: In the period of time we've been on strike at Northwest, we have ratified four contracts with other carriers. So it's not like you can say AMFA isn't willing to negotiate.

News: Some say the strike backfired and will go down as a failure. What's your response?

MacFarlane: I say that Northwest didn't get what it wanted either. It now has a bunch of rogue mechanics from all over the country. Besides, no self-respecting American could have stood there and said to your fellow workers, 'Guys, the majority of you won't be here next week, but I will, so I hope it works out for you.'

News: What are striking members doing?

MacFarlane: Some started their own automotive shops, some have gone into business with their wives in retail or restaurants. Only a handful remain in aviation.

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