Mechanics Union Stands Firm in Northwest Airlines Dispute

Mechanics for Northwest Airlines have been on strike since August. Last week, they rejected the company's latest offer. Northwest replaced the strikers months ago with replacement mechanics. The union's positioning continues to weaken.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Today's business news focuses on the airline industry. Independence Air will stop flying this week. We'll have more on the low-fare carrier in a moment. First, mechanics at Northwest Airlines have rejected the company's latest offer. They've been out on strike since August, but since Northwest replaced the striking mechanics months ago, the biggest major airline strike in years is all but over. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.

FRANK LANGFITT reporting:

To appreciate the ever-weakening position of the mechanics union, consider Northwest's latest proposal: four weeks' severance pay and no job. Union members rejected the contract on principle even though most could use the money. Union Chief Ovi Del Femine(ph) tried to cast the contract vote in the positive light.

Mr. OVI DEL FEMINE (Union Chief): You know what's so good about it, is we're still out there, we didn't take their miniscule contracts. We're out there fighting and it's great for unionism in this country. So we're not losing anything other than the fact that there are poor guys out on the picket line.

LANGFITT: But most analysts see the strike as a disaster for the union formally known as the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association. Its 4,400 members walked out in August hoping to shut down Northwest. The next month, the company declared bankruptcy, but it kept flying with replacement mechanics it had spent months training. David Field is US editor for Airline Business, a trade magazine. He says union leaders didn't appreciate the risks of striking in a struggling industry already filled with laid-off workers.

Mr. DAVID FIELD (US Editor, Airline Business): The union basically destroyed itself at Northwest. The union made its decision based upon the emotional desires of its members rather than upon a very cold numerical analytical view of the situation.

LANGFITT: The union estimates 250 members have crossed picket lines and returned to Northwest. One of those is Nasari Sarkus(ph). Sarkus says he went back to support his family and because he lost confidence in union leaders. He says the union didn't realize that when Northwest executives said the company would fly through the strike, they meant it.

Mr. NASARI SARKUS: Whatever Northwest claimed was true and what the union elected to do is ignore those claims, that they were bluffing. And as we see now, Northwest was not bluffing.

LANGFITT: But Del Famine says the union had to strike after the company demanded huge job cuts and 25 percent salary reductions. He says he also thought other unions would back his workers.

Mr. DEL FAMINE: First of all, the deck was against us. Our first contract, 56 percent of our guys lose their jobs. They made it such a way that we couldn't agree to the contract. They wanted us out. And now the union, we talked to the leadership. They said they gave us the indication they would back us, but when the time came, they didn't back us.

LANGFITT: It's no surprise the mechanics union had little support in the labor community. It's built its 16,000-member base by organizing or raiding workers in other unions. That's a hated practice that earned the mechanics many enemies. Again, airline analyst David Field.

Mr. FIELD: For the union, the lesson is certainly never assume that you're going to get emotional support or financial support from other unions until you have it lined up and sealed and signed and in the bank.

LANGFITT: Del Famine insists the fight goes on even as his members look for work elsewhere.

Mr. DEL FAMINE: Well, we're still out there. The strike is over when the last guy leaves the picket line. That's when the strike is over.

LANGFITT: Northwest says it's disappointed the mechanics rejected the contract. The company says there's no schedule for future talks.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News.

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