BY MARY MARTIN AND JEFF JONES
MINNEAPOLIS - Faced with stalled contract negotiations, as well as recent firings and victimizations of workers by the company, 40,000 unionists at Northwest Airlines (NWA) organized in six unions have stepped up efforts to win public support and carry out defensive actions on the job in their bid for a better contract. Among these workers are 26,000 members of the International Association of Machinists (IAM).
Machinists have begun informational picketing at Washington National Airport. "Work safe" efforts are under way in Atlanta, Detroit, Minneapolis, and Washington, D.C. In stations that are already understaffed, this has led to delays and cancellations of many flights, as workers decline to take potentially unsafe short cuts and refuse voluntary overtime for safety reasons. In Minneapolis, where workers are sporting union support buttons, there have been protest picnics on the aircraft ramp and whistle and hammer noise- making sessions referred to as "hammer parties" on the company's public address system. In Atlanta, workers are holding informal parking lot gatherings during break times, which they sometimes refer to as "prayer meetings." In New York, 200 Northwest employees picketed the company's April 24 shareholders meeting to demand a contract.
Northwest management has stepped up its attacks on unionized workers as contract negotiations enter the 20th month. Six mechanics at NWA's Minneapolis hub have been fired or suspended for alleged rules violations, and 18 others received layoff notices. NWA has also announced plans to move some maintenance work to other stations. The company alleges that some mechanics, with the cooperation of some pilots, are deliberately canceling flights by writing up airplanes for minor repairs or otherwise carrying out a slowdown. Since April 17 Northwest has had to cancel between 70 and 100 flights on each of at least seven days, well above the typical 20 flights canceled daily for mechanical reasons. Northwest has now stopped posting on its computer system the number of flights canceled daily for mechanical reasons.
Vince Bazzachini, president of IAM Local 1833 in Minneapolis, told the press that some workers fear for their jobs because managers have "engaged in an inquisition of their employees in an attempt to scare them into a contract posture more favorable to the company. In that situation the survival instinct kicks into high gear" and employees become more vigilant about company and government regulations to avoid being disciplined, he said.
Bazzachini gave a recent example of five managers watching one mechanic do a bore-scope inspection of an airplane engine. Extra managers have been brought in and assigned one to each overnight maintenance crew, rather than to three or four crews as previously. "I think their plan is to zoom in on Minneapolis to see if they can break us first, then they hope the other [stations] will fall," Bazzachini said. The company has launched an attempt to blame the IAM for the length of the negotiations.
Union members have been protesting the drawn-out negotiations for months now in many ways. Hundreds of IAM members participated in a March 30 "union picnic" protest on the ramp at NWA's Minneapolis-St. Paul hub, and hundreds more rallied on the sidewalk outside the terminal on April 1, marking 18 months without a new contract.
Some mechanics have also started wearing "out of order" adhesive tape on their uniforms, normally used to label parts in need of repair. A few unionists have started wearing "No Lorenzo" buttons or T-shirts, referring to Frank Lorenzo, the former owner of the now defunct Eastern Airlines. Some 8,500 members of the IAM struck Eastern Airlines in March 1989. After 22 months the machinists defeated Lorenzo's drive to create a nonunion airline and drove him out of the airline industry, sticking to their vow to stay out "one day longer." Eastern went out of business, but for a layer of workers the strike stands as an example of workers fighting back instead of accepting the bosses' dictates.
On April 24, at NWA's maintenance base in Atlanta, hundreds of IAM members came to work not wearing the mandatory company uniform, in protest of the company's stance in the contract negotiations. They explained to the company that their new uniform issue had not been delivered.
All of the nearly 40,000 union members organized in six unions at Northwest Airlines are currently in contract disputes following years of concessions to the Midwest-based airline. Among the flight attendants, organized in the Teamsters union, a green ribbon campaign is under way. The flight attendants explain this stands for "Show me the money," their demand for a wage increase. Negotiations between NWA and the pilots, represented by the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA), are also in mediation. ALPA is currently conducting a mail-in strike authorization vote of the 6,100 flight crew members at Northwest. NWA's latest proposal is a 10 percent cut in wages for as many as 40 percent of the Northwest pilots who fly narrow-body aircraft.
The latest wave of resistance began April 9 when 26,000 members of the International Association of Machinists learned that contract negotiations, which are being held in secret with a federal mediator, had been suspended for two weeks. The April 22 Star-Tribune of Minneapolis reported that the "prevailing belief among the rank and file is that Northwest has offered a four-year deal to the IAM that would raise wages 2 percent, but not retroactively, with an additional 2 percent bonus in the third year."
The IAM members, who include aircraft cleaners, clerical workers, gate agents, ground operations or ramp workers, aircraft mechanics, and plant maintenance mechanics, received a bulletin from IAM District 143 president Keith Foster, which stated, "While we do not believe that negotiations are yet at an impasse...the gap between us remains significant and we do not believe that the Company's proposal on increases in wages and pension benefits is at all acceptable to our membership."
Airline workers' labor contracts and actions suffer the constraints of the Federal Railway Labor Act, which allows the government powers to step in on the side of big business to thwart strikes by railroad and airline employees through endless mediation and "cooling off" periods.
The Clinton administration invoked the Railway Labor Act against airline workers most recently against the American Airline pilots, who after months of failed negotiations declared a strike Feb. 15, 1997. Within four minutes, the U.S. president signed an order for them to return to work, alleging a supposed threat to commerce.
In the last round of contracts, negotiated in 1993 by unions at NWA, large concessions involving cuts in pay, vacation days, and work rule changes gave NWA $897 million over three years At the end of the concession period, wages and holidays returned to the 1993 level. Most employees then received a pay increase of between 1.37 and 3 percent, which has been the only increase since October 1991.
About 200 workers, including ramp workers, ticket agents, flight attendants, and pilots, picketed the April 24 shareholders meeting of NWA, in New York City. Most of the participants in the informational picket were Northwest workers from the three area airports. They were joined by two dozen workers from Alitalia Airlines, who have been locked out for nearly five years, and workers from the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union.
"I'm here because I want a contract," said Ed Rhodes, a plant maintenance mechanic at JFK. "The company's making millions and everything's going up except our wages. They gave us worthless stock and now it's worth a couple of bucks and that's supposed to be our raise? I don't think so." This refers to the public position of NWA that raises aren't necessary in the new contract because the stock received by workers in exchange for 12-15 percent pay cuts during the last contract has gone up in price.
Billy Dymond, an aircraft mechanic for 18 years, commented, "We collectively gave back more than $800 million and saved them from going bankrupt. They made a net $600 million last year. There's no gratitude to the employees for what they've done. There's a lot of hostility toward the mechanics [by the company]. There's been a lot of firings."
Also present at the action were a handful of counter pickets, who silently faced the protesters holding pro- company signs. Northwest Airlines declined to comment on the relationship of these protesters to the company, but one protester acknowledged to a reporter from the St. Paul Pioneer Press that only one of them was a shareholder and the rest had been paid to show up.
Workers at Northwest's Los Angeles International station are also discussing the possible need for a strike. Ramp worker Sylvester Eddings said, "Having experienced two strikes during my airline career, I would say a strike is never easy, especially when it's a lengthy one. But as union members the adage still stands: `Where's there's unity there's strength.' "
Michelle DiBenedetto, another ramp worker, added, "As union sisters and brothers we need to stand together. We have already given concessions and are without a contract for nearly two years. Northwest is not showing us any respect as union workers and as laborers. A strike means we are putting our foot down and want equal rights. Nationwide we are becoming stronger."
Rugambwa Smart, an aircraft mechanic at Washington- National, put it like this: "At NWA this past week, we have witnessed the true essence of the human spirit, where all of the contract employees have decided to pool their energy and effort.... After all, it is us the workers and our families who made the sacrifices for the past few years, so why can't we truly enjoy some of the results of our sweat?"
Jeff Jones is a member of the IAM at Northwest in
Minneapolis. Mary Martin is a member of the IAM at Northwest
in Washington, D.C. Northwest workers Rose Ana Berbeo and
Olga Rodríguez in New York, Mark Friedman in Los Angeles,
and Tony Lane in Minneapolis contributed to this article.
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