Little Solidarity in Northwest Airline Strike

The mechanics on strike at Northwest Airlines are not getting much sympathy from other unions. Pilots and flight attendants continued reporting to work over the weekend as the strike got underway and the airline has kept to its schedule with replacement workers.

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Solidarity is the mantra of organized labor. If one union strikes, others are supposed to support it and not cross their picket lines. Well, when the mechanics walked out at Northwest Airlines a few days ago, they found themselves alone. NPR's Frank Langfitt explains why.

FRANK LANGFITT reporting:

In the world of labor, the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, known as AMFA, is an outsider. A small union of 16,000, it's built membership by appealing to workers in other unions. Many unions call this raiding and consider it treason. David Field is US editor for Airline Business, a trade magazine.

Mr. DAVID FIELD (US Editor, Airline Business): One of the things that a raider like AMFA does is make any union realize how potentially vulnerable it can be to a raider.

LANGFITT: Six years ago AMFA pulled away Northwest mechanics represented by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. So when AMFA asked for help on its picket line recently, the Machinists said, `Forget it.' This is the way Machinists vice president Robert Roach Jr. put it in a letter, quote: "Members will not be duped into standing with AMFA. We must inform you that mere words will not start the healing process."

But bad blood isn't the only reason the mechanics are on their own. Some Northwest unions have made concessions to keep the airline flying and complain the mechanics aren't sharing the burden. And as low-cost competitors and high fuel prices push some older airlines towards bankruptcy, unions seem more focused on protecting their members than upholding labor solidarity. The pilots say if they went on strike, too, Northwest would go bankrupt, and pilots could suffer the most. Hal Myers is a spokesman for the pilots union.

Mr. HAL MYERS (Spokesman, Pilots Union): You know, in the bankruptcy process, you not only lose a great deal of control over negotiations of your pay, work rules and other benefits, but there's a significant risk that pensions will be terminated. For pilots, this is particularly onerous because of the high level of benefits that most of us have earned.

LANGFITT: Despite delays and cancellations, Northwest says it plans to complete 96 percent of its flights this week. The company planned for the strike by hiring and training 1,500 temporary mechanics, some of whom were laid off from other airlines. The mechanics union says it had no choice but to strike. It says Northwest wanted to cut its work force in half and reduce wages by 25 percent. As for labor solidarity, AMFA says it never counted on its union brothers. Steve MacFarlane is an AMFA spokesman.

Mr. STEVE MacFARLANE (Spokesman, AMFA): We've never calculated into our strategy that we have to have the other unions to support us. While we would have welcomed that, we still believe that the replacement worker issue is what this is going to hinge around. And we just simply believe that Northwest cannot run their operation with inexperienced, undertrained mechanics that they have, I think, very recklessly put into the mix.

LANGFITT: Some see labor's tepid response to the Northwest strike as a sign of the movement's division and weakness. The AFL-CIO hasn't backed the mechanics union, which doesn't belong to the Labor Federation. And the AFL-CIO has its hands full anyway. Last month it lost more than a quarter of its members when several big unions left in a dispute over strategy. Gary Chaison teaches industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Mr. GARY CHAISON (Clark University): The AMFA strike has all the issues that should excite the labor movement into mass demonstrations. It has outsourcing of union jobs, it has employer pressure to reduce wages, and it has the use of striker replacements. The labor movement is so in disarray and confused about its priorities right now, it really doesn't know how to react to this.

LANGFITT: Responding to AMFA's claims, Northwest insists its planes are safe. And analysts say the longer Northwest keeps flying, the more likely it will break the strike. Frank Langfitt, NPR News.

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