View Full Version : Another sad day for organized labour?

Dark Knight
21st Aug 2005, 02:14
Northwest Keeps Flying as Mechanics Strike
August 21, 2005 http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/21/business/21northwest.html
DETROIT, Aug. 20

Northwest Airlines kept flying on Saturday despite a strike by its mechanics over the airline's demand for extensive wage and job cuts. Other unions at Northwest did not join the mechanics' walkout, the first major labour disruption at a domestic airline since 1998.

The situation was in sharp contrast to the walkouts that shook the industry in the 1980's and 1990's, triggering airline bankruptcies and contributing to the demise of major industry names like Pan American World Airways and Eastern Airlines.

The lack of support for the mechanics - and Northwest's ability to operate despite the walkout - demonstrated a new reality in the airline industry, which has lost more than $30 billion and cut more than 130,000 jobs in the last five years, buffeted by stiff competition from low-fare rivals and record-high fuel prices.

"This strike may be of historic importance," said Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. "Here members of a labour union are on strike to save their jobs, and the rest of the labour movement refuses to help it. So much for solidarity."

The Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, which represents 4,430 workers at the airline, went on strike at 12:01 a.m. Saturday after the sides failed to agree on Northwest's effort to win $176 million in concessions.

Northwest immediately began using a contingency plan, replacing the union members with 1,500 temporary mechanics it had hired and trained over the last few months. It also distributed some work to other employees and outside contractors. And it paid sharply lower rates to its mechanics, who under their union contract earn an average of just over $36 an hour. The airline said replacements made $27.17 an hour.

As a result of Northwest's planning, its operations resumed across the United States and around the world. Some flights were delayed and others cancelled. But bad weather in the Midwest, where Northwest has many flights, probably caused some of the disruptions.

"The airline, all things considered, is running extraordinarily well," Northwest's chief executive, Douglas M. Steenland

"Our passengers can depend on us," he said. "We are going to get them to their destinations."

The airline is seeking cuts from the mechanics' union as part of a broader bid to reduce its labour costs by $1.1 billion. The union said the cuts would have eliminated nearly half its members' jobs.

But in a sign of the lack of harmony among the airline's unions, Northwest's pilots, flight attendants, machinists and other workers crossed picket lines here and at other airports across the country. Northwest had threatened to fire any workers who staged sympathy strikes, which are illegal under labour contracts governing the airlines.

"This is a sad day for organized labour, a sad day,"

Northwest and the Federal Aviation Administration have both said the airline would maintain its safety standards despite the strike. The airline said the replacement workers were licensed airline mechanics, many of them laid off from other carriers, who had been newly certified to work on Northwest's planes.

Given its contingency plan, which also included hiring temporary flight attendants in the event that their union honoured picket lines, Northwest felt it could handle the risk of a strike, Professor Chaison said.

"For the company, there was very little fear in a strike, so they figured, why not let one happen," Professor Chaison said. The mechanics' union is small and does not have strong backing from other unions, he said, so "management thought they could outlast the union."

Quickly reminds one of years gone by with some interesting dates.

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graduates from the `Lorenzo School of Airline Management?

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Howard Hughes
21st Aug 2005, 02:34
Solidarity whilst a noble and admirable goal, is all but impossible in modern society. When was the last time we saw solidarity in this country in any inustry, let alone the dog eat dog world of aviation?

Indeed it is a sad day.

Lead Balloon
21st Aug 2005, 22:41
Whilst I'd like to be there with the bruvvers on the picket line waving my red rag and complaining about how the Company owes me a living, I would probably feel a bit stupid if my very actions not only didn't get me more pay or better conditions, but actually sent the Company under. NWA is pretty damn close to being too broke to operate - a mechanics strike (if it had any affect) would probably be the straw to break the camels back, if NWA hadn't foreseen the bloody minded attitude of the spanner men.

The airline should be applauded for having a contingency plan in place that saved their shareholders from a total loss this week.

If the NWA mechanics are as good as they think they are, why don't they vote with their feet and put their resumes into another carrier that will appreciate their rare and valuable skills!

Simple answer. They are neither rare nor valuable. They should get over it, and maybe if they don't like the pay they are on they should take a risk (like the Company does every day) and change what they are doing, sounds like everyone would be hapier all around.

On a similar note it will be interesting to see how many full-time baggage handlers there are in BA after last week's debacle. I bet you any money the airline won't take that kind of damage to its reputation and bottom line lightly.

We are living in a world where airlines have to compete against low cost carriers like Southwest and Jet Blue, that cherry pick the routes and have extremely flexible workforces (read, low paid and contracted out). What would you have the mainlines do? Stand up on a soap box and tell their customers they are wrong for using the low cost airlines? Most corporations here in the States fly their people economy in the USA and Business O.S. which means there is hardly a distinguisable difference between the cheap airlines and the expensive ones. In fact - being executive platinum on American Airlines gives me no upgrades and no special treatment - I may as well spend 25% less on the ticket and fly Southwest or America West (at least they are profitable enough to maintain their fleet).

The US economy is extremely dependant upon domestic air travel, so to have one small segment of the economy holding the rest to ransom is just plain wrong.

Dark Knight
22nd Aug 2005, 04:07
August 22, 2005
Well-Laid Plan Kept Northwest Flying in Strike
DETROIT, Aug. 21 - As Northwest Airlines rode out a full weekend with its mechanics' union on strike, it was enjoying the fruits of an elaborate plan that was meant to not only keep its planes flying, but also to overhaul the way its workers do their jobs.

Northwest's plan to use temporary workers in place of striking members of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association took 18 months to create, company executives said, and it required extensive analysis that began on the tarmac at each of its airports. It also required the cooperation of other unions and the federal government - and even consultation with the White House.

The strategy passed its initial test over a light weekend of flights, but its success or failure will become clearer this week as the airline resumes its normal weekday schedule.

Union members walking picket lines at Northwest's major international hub here on Sunday argued that the airline, which they struck over its demand for $176 million in wage and benefit cuts, would see mechanical problems mount as the week progresses.

"There's just so many little things that will start compiling before it becomes epidemic," said Kevin Opuda, 45, a striking mechanic who has been with the airline for 18 years.

But one labour expert said Northwest's ability to switch to new work routines and keep operating, at least at the outset, sends an important signal to unions that strikes may have lost their power as tools to fight job losses and other cuts.

"This gives all of the opportunities now to the companies and to the replacement workers, and it makes it very, very grim for strikers," said David Gregory, a labour law professor at St. John's University in New York.

As relations with the mechanics' union deteriorated, Northwest developed two goals, executives said. Along with staying in the air, it wanted to cut costs by eliminating 2,000 jobs and embracing the efficient maintenance systems used by JetBlue Airways and other low-fare airlines.

"It's a function not only of having new persons, but starting yesterday, we have a new business model," Northwest's chief executive, Douglas M. Steenland, said Sunday in an interview.
JetBlue, which does not have union workers, and other low-fare airlines have much lower costs than traditional airlines like Northwest.

For one thing, these airlines do not perform extensive aircraft checks, called heavy maintenance, instead farming out the work to outside contractors. Northwest has done the same under its new work plan, Mr. Steenland said, potentially saving millions of dollars a year.

But the plan, created by Andrew C. Roberts, Northwest's executive vice president for operations, went much further than simply outsourcing, drawing from ideas tried at other
airlines and incorporating new ones.

"None of the building blocks are unique to Northwest," Mr. Roberts said Sunday, "but the combination is unique to the industry, and the specifics are peculiar to Northwest."

Over the last 18 months, the airline analysed every job represented by the mechanics' union at every airport and calculated the skills required to fix each of its planes. It then decided how many of those workers it actually needed and what kind of replacements it would require in the event of a strike.

Northwest officials at each airport were given plans at the beginning of the year spelling out how the airline wanted jobs to be performed. Then, three months ago, the airline began hiring replacement workers, who received extensive classroom and hands-on training in Tucson.

There, the replacements, all licensed mechanics, practiced repairs on Northwest planes that the airline had parked in the desert near Tucson when business fell in 2001. The only plane the workers did not learn to fix was the airline's new Airbus A-330, which it flies overseas. Those repairs are being left to Northwest supervisors, Mr. Roberts said.

Northwest also began an effort in Washington to convince federal officials that its plan would work, according to people involved in the discussions.

The airline's management assured the Bush administration that it did not want the president to convene a Presidential Emergency Board, which could order workers back to their jobs in case of a strike, as outlined in the Railway Labor Act. Instead, the airline said, it wanted the chance to carry out its plan.

Last week, White House officials said President Bush did not plan to intervene, since the strike did not threaten to disrupt the nation's transportation system.

Meanwhile, airline executives met numerous times with officials at the Transportation Department and the Federal Aviation Administration, walking them through its training procedures and assuring them that its planes and mechanics would meet all federal standards.

Mr. Roberts said none of Northwest's unions promised up front that they would not stage sympathy strikes, like the one that snarled British Airways' operations in London this month, when its workers briefly walked off the job in support of striking catering crews.

In fact, Northwest had also hired replacement flight attendants in case their union, which is aligned with the mechanics' union, walked out.

But once the strike began, Northwest's unions said they would stay on the job, as they are legally required to do. And some differences between the airline's old and new approaches began to appear.

Before the strike, union rules specified that only members of the mechanics' union, known as AMFA, could deliver planes to airport gates. But on Saturday, the pilot of a Northwest 757 in Detroit, upon discovering his plane was not ready, hopped into a pickup truck and went to the hangar to fetch his plane, rather than keep crew and passengers waiting, airline officials said.

Meanwhile, members of the machinists' union, which usually handles tasks like baggage handling and customer service, took on the task of cleaning Northwest's cabins between flights at its hubs here and in Minneapolis, a job that was previously done by the mechanics' union.

Steve Gordon, president of the machinists' union local here, said he did not enjoy crossing another union's picket line. But Mr. Gordon, whose union used to represent mechanics until AMFA won an organizing drive in 1999, said he preferred to see his workers taking on the mechanics' old tasks, instead of having Northwest hire outside contractors.

"I'm going to make sure my members have a chance to get that work," Mr. Gordon said.

Northwest's situation is somewhat unusual. The job market is awash in licensed airplane mechanics, who were among 130,000 workers in the airline industry to lose their jobs since the
September 2001 attacks.

Likewise, the mechanics' union is a rebel organization that is not part of the A.F.L-C.I.O. and has few strong allies in the labour movement. It has angered other unions by convincing their members to join its ranks, in part by promising never to grant concessions to the airlines despite the industry's deep woes.

But Professor Gregory suggested that if one airline can use a walkout as an opportunity to cut jobs and revamp its operations, other airlines, and indeed companies in other industries, could do the same.

In particular, that could be a threat to the United Auto Workers union, whose leaders are meeting this week to discuss General Motors' bid for lower health care costs in the face of mounting losses.

The major carmakers have rarely tried to operate during U.A.W. strikes. The most recent one, at G.M. in 1998, shut down virtually the entire company.

But Professor Gregory noted that Toyota, Honda and other foreign companies do not have unionized workers at their American plants. If replacement workers and new work rules that lower costs could save G.M. and Ford, "that's a no-brainer," Professor Gregory said.

Northwest's contingency plan was an open secret at the airline. AMFA officials called the plan an attempt to bust the union, and argued that the replacements hired by the airline could not match the experience of union members. Northwest says the replacement workers have 5 to 10 years of experience at other major airlines.

As the strike deadline approached, the union focused on job losses, not the job redesign that Northwest has started. And union officials repeatedly contended this weekend that although its planes were flying, Northwest's operations were not running smoothly.

"They're lying," said Dennis Sutton, vice president of AMFA's local union, said here on Sunday. If the airline spent 18 months preparing for the strike, "they did a terrible job," he added.

Mr. Sutton denied that AMFA had been caught off guard by Northwest's plan to keep operating. In fact, he said two
incidents here on Saturday, in which a flight bound for Pittsburgh turned back because of smoke in the cockpit and four tires on a plane arriving from Seattle burst on landing, were proof that the airline was being hurt by unskilled mechanics. Northwest, for its part, said the incidents were not out of the ordinary and were unrelated to the strike.

The airline did have some delays over the weekend in getting its planes off the ground. Analysts estimated that about half of its flights were late. The airline would not give specifics on delays but said only about 2 percent of its flights were cancelled, a normal industry rate.

N. Walter Goins, a Northwest pilot, waited several hours here for a jet to be repaired before a flight to Los Angeles. But Mr. Goins said the delay was understandable. "Rather than doing a slapdash job, they're taking their time," he said.

Northwest switched to its lighter fall schedule on Saturday, the first day of the strike. The airline was scheduled to operate 1,381 flights on Sunday and 1,473 on Monday, down from about 1,600 on a typical summer day.

Mr. Steenland, the Northwest chief executive, said the company would decide over the next week whether the temporary workers hired by the airline would be offered permanent jobs.

Under federal law, the two sides in the strike must be open to continued negotiations. But no matter whether AMFA returns or the replacements stay on, the new work methods "absolutely" will stay in place, Mr. Steenland said.