by Phil Willkie
Northwest Airlines mechanics and related workers have now been on strike five months. A handful of pilots maintain a presence at opposite ends of the departure tier at Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport. Another group pickets the work entrances. Nearby, a half-dozen Northwest planes sit idle outside a large hangar near 34th Avenue, even as NWA bankruptcy proceedings begin this week in New York.
From Day One of the strike, Northwest has maintained it has been business as usual. But there have been safety problems on several flights. A flight from San Francisco to Honolulu had to dump a lot of oil after one of its two engines conked out. On Jan. 2, there was a tailpipe fire at the Minneapolis airport. The fire department was called to put it out. On Jan. 5, another flight to Minneapolis had to be towed to a gate after a light showed gears were not working safely. Later that day, the same plane had to be diverted to Detroit. There have been several other safety incidents.
hometown airline curries a lot of favor. The State of Minnesota loaned Northwest
$320 million in 1993 to build maintenance bases in Chisholm and Duluth. Northwest
still owes the state $238 million. The Metropolitan Airport Commission has bent
over backwards giving financial breaks to Northwest. Former long-term Iron Range
DFL state senator Doug Johnson is now the lobbyist for Northwest. Former Vice
President Walter Mondale sat on the NWA board of directors.
Clearly, the big losers in this fiasco are the mechanics who have lost their
jobs. Most of their replacements are workers subcontracted at lower wages. The
seeds of this drama began in 1999 when mechanics, airplane custodians and other
related workers—9,000 in all—disaffiliated from the International
Association of Machinists (IAM) and affiliated with the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal
Association (AMFA). IAM views AMFA as a renegade union.
Kip Hedges, the former president of the IAM local said AMFA appealed to mechanics
who were unhappy with the 1998 contract. “The AMFA made an elitist appeal
suggesting mechanics as professional skilled workers could negotiate better
on their own. They felt protected by their skill level, but they lost solidarity
with the other workers,” said Hedges. While Hedges called the disaffiliation
a big mistake, he honored the AMFA picket line. Hedges was among the 18,000
ground workers who stayed with IAM. Airline workers are governed under the Railway
Labor Act. They may honor other union picket lines, unlike most organized labor
who are governed under the NLRB. The IAM urged workers to cross the AMFA picket
lines to get even for the disaffiliation. Hedges again: “IAM leadership
feels AMFA are outside the labor movement. But once you have opened the doors
to a lack of solidarity, you have opened the possibility of killing all the
Ludwig is the president of AMFA Local 33 and was an NWA mechanic for 16 years.
The AMFA leadership, unlike the IAM, are active floor workers. The IAM, like
most other unions, have full-time union bureaucrats.
NWA’s last best and final offer to the mechanics proposed the immediate
layoff of 53 percent of their current work force, a 26 percent pay cut for remaining
workers, and the termination of the pension plan. NWA had already laid off half
of the mechanics. So, in reality there would only be 2,500 union mechanics,
down from 9,000 in 1999. On August 19, AMFA offered to cut worker pay by 20
percent, and offered a 20 percent co-pay for medical benefits, and an agreement
to eliminate 1,300 jobs. NWA refused to even discuss the offer.
Kip Hedges said if the IAM, the pilots, and the flight attendants had honored
the AMFA picket lines, the strike would have lasted two to three days.
Professional Flight Attendants Association (PFAA) is also an independent union,
which bolted from the Teamsters in 2001. Ryan Murphy, a gay labor activist and
former United flight attendant, said, “Most flight attendants are gays
and women. The Teamsters did not know how to talk to these people.”
The PFAA leadership supports the AMFA strike, but the rank-and-file membership
voted against a sympathy strike. Karen Schultz, an officer with PFAA, said NWA
sent four must-read e-mails that said, “if you sympathy strike you will
be fired.” In reality, NWA does not have that authority. The flight attendants
who honored the AMFA picket lines have been furloughed. Schultz said flight
attendants only had 10 days to conduct the vote. “Our members, unlike
ground workers, are spread throughout the world,” Schultz said. “PFAA
computers were hacked and the FBI is investigating.” Schultz believes
NWA wants to bust all the unions.
Hesse, the organizer of the United Food and Commercial Workers, is a strong
supporter of the AMFA strike. His union collected thousands of dollars in contributions.
He encouraged his members to join the AMFA picket line. Hesse is also a local
leader of the Change to Win coalition, the unions that recently broke from the
AFL-CIO. Hesse said, “A picket line is a picket line. The labor movement
are their own worst enemies. Labor people should never cross picket lines.”
Hesse plans to never fly Northwest Airlines again.
The United Auto Workers gave AMFA $884,000. Many other unions have been supportive,
including AFSCME, the carpenters, and the Service Employees International Union.
In September, NWA filed for bankruptcy, further complicating the AMFA strike.
NWA has appealed to the bankruptcy judge to revoke all existing labor contracts.
In May, former NWA CEO Al Checci sold $54 million worth of NWA stock.
Murphy dismisses all the talk that the labor movement is dead. The problems
for the workers are not going to go away, Murphy speculates. “With subcontracting,
much of the current work may change. The union will have to reinvent themselves.
They can still be a vehicle for resistance.”
One Minnesota labor official, who prefers to remain anonymous, says, “The
AMFA strike was lost the day it began. The classic error was walking out on
the IAM. It is pivotal to build broad public support from all the unions. They
needed to shut down Northwest.”
Reflections on the 1975 Taxis strike
I was one of the organizers of the strike by the guild of taxi drivers
exactly 20 years ago. The Minneapolis taxi drivers were represented by Teamsters
Local 792. We were thrown into a large local that represented a lot of other
drivers, delivery people and emergency vehicles. The leadership of Local 792
negotiated a dime increase on the meter flag that only benefited the companies.
drivers at that time worked on a 40 to 45 percent commission, depending on whether
or not the driver was full-time or part-time. The sell-out on the “dime”
became a pivotal issue that led a group of cabbies to organize a disaffiliation
from the Teamsters. The organizers were young men and women veterans of the
anti-Vietnam War movement, and members of the George McGovern campaign. I started
driving a hack for Blue and White in June of 1975. I was eligible to vote, and
I chose to disaffiliate.
I had organized for the United Farm Workers (UFW) grape boycott. The UFW was
led by Caesar Chavez. The Teamsters had raided UFW grape contracts in 1973.
The Teamsters were a shady union; several of their former presidents were jailed—most
notably, Jimmy Hoffa, the father of the current Teamsters president. Hoffa was
eventually pardoned by Richard Nixon, and in 1972, the Teamsters endorsed Nixon’s
re-election. In 1975, Hoffa was campaigning to regain the presidency of the
Teamsters. In July of that year, he disappeared outside a Detroit restaurant
and was never seen again.
taxi drivers wanted to have rank-and-file leadership for their union, and they
wanted to end sweetheart contracts. The new independent guild easily defeated
the Teamsters. Our problems had just begun.
The companies Blue and White, and Yellow Checker refused to recognize the new
union, fired union organizers, and refused to bargain in good faith. Their final
offer included a provision that would allow leasing. In effect, leasing would
make drivers independent operators, no longer under the jurisdiction of the
National Labor Relations Board. The taxi companies wanted us to vote for a contract
that would dissolve the bargaining unit. The cab drivers voted to strike, and
a walk-out was set for Dec. 26, 1975.
Because of my experience with UFW, the guild leadership appointed me to organize
public support. I was 22 years old. The parallels between the AMFA and taxi
guild strikes are haunting.
Teamsters had been thrown out of the AFL-CIO for corruption, but they still
carried a lot of favor with the labor federation. The Minneapolis Central Labor
Union Council refused to support our strike. The Central Labor Councils in Minneapolis
and St. Paul have refused to support AMFA. We received strong support from individual
unions, including the carpenters, AFSCME (public employees), United Auto Workers,
the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and the United Electrical
Union. Today, these same organizations support AMFA.
The taxi companies—like Northwest Airlines—also had ties to the
DFL. Jack Daley, the head of Yellow Checker and the chief negotiator for both
Blue and White and Yellow Checker, was also campaign treasurer for DFL Governor
Wendell Anderson. Minneapolis Mayor Al Hofstede, and Minneapolis City Council
President Lou DeMars were in Jack Daley’s hip pocket. So much for the
DFL representing labor.
56 days, the taxi drivers settled for the contract that had been offered in
December. We picketed through two bitterly cold months. We had massive public
support, but we could not shut down the taxi companies. An FBI provocateur infiltrated
the drivers union, and three members were jailed. The union treasurer ran off
with union funds and was also jailed.
In 1976, we affiliated with the Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks (BRAC).
We were in the same council that represented the clerks at Northwest Airlines.
Like the Teamsters, BRAC was heavily bureaucratic. I was elected lobbyist for
BRAC Lodge 3025. With the help of newfound labor allies, we were able to persuade
the Minneapolis City Council to defeat the taxi companies’ leasing provision.
Solidarity is paramount in labor organizing. Now, there has been a new break
in the labor movement with the formation of the Change to Win coalition. Ironically,
both the United Farm Workers and the Teamsters are part of the new coalition.
union members include the SEIU, the United Food and Commercial Workers, the
carpenters, and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union (HERE). Their
aim is to organize Wal-Mart.
Labor must learn its lessons, and, above all, it must have solidarity. ||