Week No. 6: Northwest Picket Lines Wane

The mechanics strike at Northwest Airlines Inc., viewed as a groundbreaking labor dispute that captured the attention of the travel industry last month, is in its sixth week and the picket lines are thinning.

Of the 4,400 mechanics who went on strike last month, dozens are finding new jobs. Meanwhile, about 10 local mechanics and 30 nationwide have gone back to work for Northwest, reports the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association.

Northwest is still flying, but the Eagan, Minn.-based airline's finances have worsened, with the carrier restructuring through Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Still, the fight isn't over, say union officials and mechanics who contend there's hope the strike will end at least with a severance package that mechanics feel is acceptable.

The bankruptcy offers new hope the mechanics union might reach a deal with Northwest under the eye of a judge after rounds of unsuccessful talks. For mechanic Pat Holleran, it makes more sense to negotiate with Northwest in bankruptcy. He didn't want to agree to concessions before the filing, then be forced to give more as Northwest restructures.

"Every time we agree to something, they say it's never enough," Holleran said, referring to Northwest upping its demands from the mechanics from $176 million when the strike began to $203 million earlier this month.

The last round of talks collapsed Sept. 11 with the union agreeing to wage and job cuts but wanting more than the 16 weeks of severance pay Northwest offered.

"They didn't have a friend in the bargaining table. They didn't have a friend in the consumer. Maybe they'll have a friend in bankruptcy court," said Gary Chaison, professor of management at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

Meanwhile, union leaders are trying to keep their fight alive and maintain morale by starting picket lines across metro Detroit.

"It's very easy to have your cause overshadowed, and that's what's happening here," Chaison said.

That's why Bob Clough, a Northwest mechanic for 25 years, joined another union's protest Tuesday. He and about a dozen other striking mechanics picketed with members of the International Union of Operating Engineers who were protesting the loss of union jobs, mostly building maintenance positions at the Penobscot and First National buildings in downtown Detroit, where the new manager, Farbman Group, fired about 36 people to cut costs.

"We're keeping the morale up by being involved," said Clough, 48, of Allen Park.

The union has also spread its protest to the homes of workers who have crossed the picket line and expects to start picketing businesses that work with Northwest, said AMFA Local 5 president Bob Rose.

Still, the future weighs on the mechanics who are showing up to protest, as Northwest says it is permanently replacing their jobs.

Clough said he doesn't plan to return to the airline industry and expects to leave the state.

But that won't work for striking mechanic Al Sinis, who doesn't want to make his daughters switch schools.

"It's getting hard. I'm not ready to relocate," said Sinis, 44, of Canton.

Northwest says its operations are running smoothly, with 99% of flights completed and 75% of flights arriving on time Monday.

But AMFA says the airline's numbers don't tell the whole story.

"As much as they'd like to indicate that everything is just wonderful, there are a lot of indicators that prove otherwise," said Steve MacFarlane, AMFA assistant national director. He referred to a recent flight from Minneapolis to Tokyo that was slated to leave Thursday afternoon but after a problem with the engine and a fuel leak didn't leave until Saturday morning.

Northwest stressed that the delay had nothing to do with the mechanics strike.