NWA Dug Deep to Protect Execs During Strike

Feb. 16, 2006
During the first few weeks of their bitter strike last year, Northwest Airlines' mechanics apparently made the carrier fear for the safety of dozens of its executives.

During the first few weeks of their bitter strike last year, Northwest Airlines' mechanics apparently made the carrier fear for the safety of dozens of its executives.

Northwest continued to operate after mechanics and cleaners walked out in mid-August; emotions ran high and thousands of workers lost well-paying jobs.

The airline brought in plenty of help to keep watch. In Detroit alone, Northwest spent at least $320,000 on what is described as "executive protection" in August and September, according to a creditor claim filed in bankruptcy court by one of the firms hired to provide security during the strike. The strike began Aug. 19.

From Sept. 5 through Sept. 14, about 50 employees of Boston-based American International Security provided executive protection services to Northwest in Detroit, where the airline operates a major hub. The charge: $552 per day per agent, according to bankruptcy court records. Northwest declared bankruptcy on Sept. 14.

On other days, one to 17 agents provided protection to Northwest executives in Detroit. The security firm also provided as many as 107 "security specialists" a day to Northwest there, each charging a daily rate of $358.

American International's court filing — which claims it is still owed some $1.3 million by Northwest — is the first glimpse into the security measures employed by the company, part of an elaborate and aggressive operating plan to overcome a strike.

So far, no documents seem to have been filed that shed light on how much Northwest spent with other security firms for protection in the Twin Cities and elsewhere.

The security firm believed to have had the largest presence at Northwest —Virginia-based Vance International — has not submitted a claim against the carrier for unpaid bills.

Eagan-based Northwest would not comment on its security efforts Wednesday.

Officially, the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association remains on strike at Northwest. But the airline has outsourced the work of most of the 4,000 strikers who walked out. Replacement workers and strikers who crossed picket lines make up 880 in-house mechanics that remain with the airline.

Last fall's confrontation resulted in few arrests but many tense moments during the early days.

Leafleting and picketing union members stationed themselves at key Northwest airports to try to win public support — and harangue strikebreakers.

Strikers picketed the homes of Northwest CEO Doug Steenland and Andy Roberts, Northwest's executive vice president of operations. They relentlessly vilified Steenland, likening him to the Grinch, Osama bin Laden and a Nazi.

One day, strikers tried to keep replacement workers at three Minneapolis hotels from boarding buses bound for the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

At best, American International probably will end up collecting pennies on the dollar for the $1.3 million owed by Northwest.

According to its Web site, American International's services include "strike management and security." The firm did not return calls requesting comment on its dealings with Northwest.

American International also provided security services to Northwest in Boston, Chicago, Seattle, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Milwaukee and Phoenix. But about half of its charges were racked up in Detroit.

The mechanics union says that Vance provided most of the outside security forces Northwest brought in to cope with strikers in the Twin Cities and elsewhere.

Vance is especially well-known for providing "labor unrest protection" for a company's property, operations and employees, particularly strikebreakers.

It apparently planned Northwest's security procedures during the strike, subcontracting some work out to other companies.

A spokeswoman for Vance said the company "can't comment on client engagements."

Overall, the mechanics union has "no idea" how many security agents Northwest hired during the strike's height, said union spokesman Steve Conway.

"Vance was the largest one, though," he said. "They were using Vance to protect the strikebreakers. … Vance is definitely the high-priced spread."

Northwest has indicated it hopes to exit bankruptcy by the end of this year.

At this point, it's still trying to nail down contracts with its pilots, flight attendants and ground workers as part of its effort to cut labor costs by $1.4 billion.

In bankruptcy court filings, Northwest has said it expects it could face more than 100,000 claims by creditors.

Martin J. Moylan can be reached at [email protected] or 651-228-5479.

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