Striking Northwest Mechanics Replaced

In Detroit, striking mechanics at Northwest Airlines are walking picket lines while replacement workers are bused in to do their jobs. Some of the strikers are angry and frustrated, but others are preparing for new careers. The replacement workers seem nervous, but glad to have higher-paying jobs.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The mechanics' strike at Northwest Airlines is heading into its third week. Despite some dire predictions, replacement workers are keeping the carrier flying. Striking workers were angry with the replacements for taking their jobs. Now some of those on strike are beginning to worry. NPR's Frank Langfitt went to Detroit and he filed this report.

FRANK LANGFITT reporting:

They've come from around the country for a reported $27 an hour. They work 12-hour shifts at the airport, then return to a Hyatt where they read, watch TV and mostly keep to themselves. Shifts begin with security guards leading the replacement workers onto school buses. Brown paper covers the windows to hide their identities. As they approach the airport under police escort, this is what they hear.

(Soundbite of striking workers)

Unidentified Man #1: Scabs!

Unidentified Man #2: Hey, Scabs, go home.

Unidentified Man #3: Scabs, scabs, go home.

LANGFITT: That's Jim Thurkleson(ph) and another striking mechanic. They're picketing by the side of the road. Northwest mechanics typically earn about $36 an hour. So when the company demanded pay and benefit cuts totalling $176 million, the mechanics struck. As a light rain falls, Thurkleson says he can't fathom how a fellow mechanic could take his job.

Mr. JIM THURKLESON (Striking Mechanic): Well, to be called a scab is the lowest possible form of life. I just don't understand how they can go ahead and cross picket lines like that.

(Soundbite of aircraft)

LANGFITT: Some union members insist their replacements can't do the job. Linda Hansen(ph) is marching outside the passenger terminal. She watches a replacement attach a hose to clean out toilets from the back of a plane.

Ms. LINDA HANSEN (Striking Mechanic): Now you watch him. He's not going to go up to that front. I've watched them all week. None of them do. They're just servicing the back. I know they have to be complaining because if they're not servicing both the back and the front, you're going to get a smelly aircraft.

LANGFITT: But even as she rails against the replacements, Hansen is working on a resume. She says she's afraid Northwest could break the union.

Ms. HANSEN: I really thought they wouldn't last this long. I thought that they would, you know, see that they need us, that we know what we're doing. We appreciate our job and we did offer to take a pay cut.

LANGFITT: The replacement mechanics refuse to speak for broadcast. Northwest made them sign confidentiality agreements. If they talk, they can be fired. But a couple spoke away from the microphone. A man in his early 50s says he used to work for a small airline in the Southwest. Now, he says, he's thrilled to work on advanced planes like the Airbus A330 at a major carrier. At least a few union mechanics say they're ready to leave the financially battered industry. After one strike, veteran mechanic Nasri Sarkis opened a tanning salon because he knew he couldn't rely on the airline business.

Mr. NASRI SARKIS (Striking Airline Mechanic): I want to move forward really.

LANGFITT: When the mechanics struck this time, Sarkis had an epiphany.

Mr. SARKIS: Finally this is what I needed. I needed somebody to fire me because I couldn't get myself to quit this job. And now I feel free.

LANGFITT: Sarkis has a new business plan. He won't say what it is but it won't involve aircraft.

Mr. SARKIS: I don't want to deal with airplanes unless I'm going on vacation somewhere.

LANGFITT: Despite delays and cancellations, Northwest says in recent days more than 70 percent of its flights have arrived on time, a claim the union disputes. And when flights do arrive late, the airline tells passengers this.

(Soundbite of Northwest Airlines announcement)

Unidentified Flight Attendant: On behalf of this flight crew, we'd like to thank you for choosing Northwest Airlines this afternoon. We sincerely apologize for this delay and hope that we can better serve you in the future.

LANGFITT: Frank Langfitt, NPR News.

BLOCK: Just ahead: re-establishing telecommunications in the hurricane-hit Gulf Coast. That story and the experience of evacuees in Texas when we continue with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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