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Mechanics' strike at Northwest Airlines:
High stakes for labor

September 2, 2005 | Page 5

LEE SUSTAR looks at what's at stake for the labor movement in the bitter strike by mechanics at Northwest Airlines.

THE UNION-BUSTING demands that forced the mechanics' strike at Northwest Airlines is only the latest stage in the attack on airline labor that began after September 11, 2001.

The attacks provided the pretext to radically downsize an industry rife with overcapacity built up by the late-1990s economic boom and Washington's deregulation that opened the door to low-cost startups like Jet Blue. "The industry is potentially headed toward its largest loss year ever, and there is absolutely no evidence of fundamental improvement on the horizon," industry analyst Samuel Buttrick told the Wall Street Journal--on September 10, 2001.

Today, there is an interlocking effort by airline management, Wall Street, bankruptcy court judges and the federal government against the unions. Unions have been systematically played off against one another within the same airlines to extract billions of dollars in concessions--and then airlines demand that givebacks accepted by unions at one company be matched at others.

One of the driving forces in this effort is the Air Transportation Stabilization Board (ATSB), created in the aftermath of September 11 to provide loss-ridden airlines with federal loan guarantees, taking company stock warrants as collateral.

This wasn't a step towards nationalization, despite fears of "socialism" voiced by some on the Republican right. On the contrary, the ATSB, dominated by free-market ideologues, demanded massive cuts in labor costs in the airlines that it helped, starting with a $380 million loan guarantee for America West.

The biggest recipient of the ATSB's support was US Airways, which got a $900 million loan guarantee to entice new financing for the airline in the second of two periods in bankruptcy court--on the condition of cuts in labor costs. When the mechanics' union at US Airways--the International Association of Machinists (IAM)--hesitated to take a second round of concessions in January, U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Stephen Mitchell imposed wage cuts ranging from 6 to 35 percent, eliminated 2,000 of 4,000 jobs, and terminated pension plans totaling $2.4 billion that cover the company's machinists, flight attendants and nonunion staff (the pilots' pensions had been terminated by management earlier).

Then, in July, the ATSB blessed the merger of America West and US Airways, creating a new low-wage airline that will increase pressure for wage and benefit cuts still further. The ATSB also furthered the cost-cutting agenda by refusing to grant loan guarantees at United Airlines in 2002, rejecting management's cost-cutting plan as insufficient.

Thus, United's management--which had extracted pay cuts in 1994 in exchange for an employee stock ownership program--filed for bankruptcy, and has used court-imposed temporary wage cuts and the threat of the elimination of union contracts to grab $3.5 billion in concessions since 2003.

With United and US Airways having slashed costs, the other major carriers--Delta, American and Northwest--are facing the mounting threat of bankruptcy themselves.

But rather than cede control of the company to a bankruptcy judge and creditors, Northwest's management is determined to survive by driving the anti-labor agenda even further. In May, Northwest hired Neal Cohen as its top financial officer--the man who, in the same job at US Airways, terminated the pilots' pensions and pushed other huge cuts before walking away with a $2.5 million severance package.

Northwest management rejected an offer of $176 million in givebacks from the mechanics' union, the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA). The bosses wouldn't take the money because their objective isn't just to cut labor costs, but destroy the union entirely.

With far bigger unions having failed to resist concessions, AMFA--with just 17,000 members and outside the AFL-CIO labor federation--was seen as vulnerable.

The IAM, which still represents ramp workers, puts destroying AMFA ahead of labor solidarity or fighting concessions, and is scabbing on AMFA work. To entice members of the Air Line Pilots Association to cross picket lines, management offered the carrot of protecting pensions by staying out of bankruptcy courts.

To the Professional Flight Attendants Association (PFAA), management brandished the stick of threats of permanent replacement if they struck alongside AMFA. Like AMFA, the PFAA is independent, having ousted the Teamsters as bargaining agent--and faced similar threats of isolation from the labor movement.

All this has set the stage for a possible repeat of the PATCO debacle of 1981, when organized labor did nothing as striking air traffic controllers were fired--using the excuse that their union was outside the AFL-CIO. That comparison is on the minds of labor activists in several cities working to make sure that Northwest doesn't end up as another disaster for unions.

Northwest mechanics face a big challenge--and their stand against corporate greed deserves the support of working people everywhere.

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AMFA Airline Representative Kevin Hufford:
"We're soulless numbers on their balance sheet"

KEVIN HUFFORD is the AMFA Local 4 Airline Representative for Northwest Airlines in Chicago. Here, we print excerpts from an interview he did with Socialist Worker about the strike.

NORTHWEST'S PRIMARY goal is to get rid of what they call FTEs--full-time equivalents. We are all soulless numbers on their balance sheets. They want to get rid of us whenever they can, wherever they can.

That's because an FTE carries pensions, a medical and dental plan, vacation and holiday pay, sick pay, and other benefits. The lower they get the head count of the FTEs, the more efficient they think are.

This isn't just Northwest, and it isn't just the airline industry. Look at Delphi [the auto parts maker, which is set to slash jobs]. This is the Wal-Martization of American industry--get rid of the heads.

In 1998 [when AMFA won a representation election at Northwest that ousted the IAM], there were 9,300 mechanics in airline maintenance, plant maintenance, facilities maintenance and cleaners. That number has been cut by 50 percent. And now they want to cut another 50 percent.

The IAM contract never had strong language on outsourcing. AMFA negotiated caps on how much work could be outsourced [in its first contract signed in 2001]. The problem was that the union became dependent on the company for the statistics for a particular cap. Up to 37 percent of all budgeted money for parts, material and labor can be outsourced--but that will be exceeded in the contract they just imposed.

AMFA fought really hard to get retroactive pay at current pay rates, which would have been $44,000 per member, but the company was not financially able to do it. But AMFA was actually able to get a deal done under a Presidential Emergency Board [a body that prevents strikes and lockouts under transportation labor law] for partial retro pay. Personally, I got a check for nearly $14,000. The company was never able to digest those payouts.

A week after the ink was dry on the contract in May 2001, they began closing our back [heavy maintenance] shops. This involves putting a 747 on jacks, disassembling it, taking off panels that cover the airframe, and looking for corrosion and cracks. This is hugely time-consuming and expensive. But it can keep a plane flying for five more years, structurally sound. And it is a lot cheaper to do than buying a new airplane.

Northwest has sent that work to Singapore, which gets them away from a lot of things--FTEs and background checks. Northwest is also a leading customer for Timco [a nonunion aircraft maintenance company in the South].

Back in late March, NWA outsourced our wheel and brake shops in Minneapolis and Detroit, and got rid of 70 or 80 jobs by finding a nonunion shop in Memphis. Come June, our brakes were locking up and seizing, and hydraulic passageways were leaking.

Two tires blew out on a plane in Detroit in the first days of the strike. That never should have happened. Passengers think that the Federal Aviation Administration is watching this. But the FAA is a paper tiger.

The stakes in this strike for labor are even higher than the media is playing them out to be. The true union people who uphold union values understand what that is all about.

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