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News :: Labor
Airline uses scabs as 4,400 strike Northwest
24 Aug 2005
As Northwest Airline (NWA) 4,400 mechanics and aircraft cleaners walked out on strike Aug. 20, there was more truth to be found on the picket lines than on the corporate-owned television or in the newspapers.
Airline uses scabs as 4,400 strike Northwest

By Cheryl LaBash

DETROIT -- As Northwest Airline (NWA) 4,400 mechanics and aircraft cleaners walked out on strike Aug. 20, there was more truth to be found on the picket lines than on the corporate-owned television in the newspapers.

In addition to attacking the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA), Northwest, the media and the federal government are continuing their decades-long assault on workers everywhere.

NWA's last best offer to their union eliminated the cleaner jobs, replacing them with $8.50-per-hour non-staff contractual workers. In metropolitan Detroit, the minimum wage required to rent a two-bedroom home is $15.48 per hour. Many of the women on the Detroit picket line spoke about their more than 20 years seniority cleaning aircraft, inside and out, and how their work has included everything from emptying waste water to replenishing fresh water.

According to AMFA literature, distributed at the Detroit terminal, NWA had been offered significant concessions including a 16-percent pay cut, a 20-percent out-of-pocket contribution to medical costs and changes to hard-won work rules. But that was not enough for NWA management. The corporation demanded a 25-percent pay cut from the mechanics, but not from management.

The AMFA decided to fight instead of folding when confronted with the airline industry's demands.

NWA also demanded the right to reduce the number of mechanics maintaining the aircraft from 9,700 four years ago to 2,500, a cut of nearly 75 percent. In negotiations with other unions, NWA is also demanding the right to outsource flight attendants for overseas travel.

Despite these cuts, the corporate media and airline industry are trying hard to persuade working-class travelers to bet their safety and spend their money on NWA tickets. To do this two major untruths are being repeated: first, the strike has had no effect and second, the strike has no support.

273 flights canceled

Here are the facts:

On Aug. 20, the first day of the strike, NWA canceled more than 273 flights. NWA calls the cancellations "shifting to the fall schedule early." At Northwest's number one hub, the new lavish McNamara Terminal at Detroit's Metro Airport, there are empty ticket counters and short lines at the security check points.

Two safety incidents occurred there within a few hours of the start of the strike. Around 4 p.m., four tires blew out on an incoming flight. Later an air-conditioning malfunction sent smoke into the aircraft cabin forcing a flight to Pittsburgh to return to Detroit so travelers could board another plane.

On Aug. 21 nearly half of the scheduled non-stop flights were delayed or canceled. The Detroit News reported that frustrated customers felt NWA "didn't seem to be upfront about the level of delays passengers should expect."

The media has reported widely that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had given its stamp of approval to NWA's training of scab "replacement mechanics" and its plan to maintain its fleet with a drastically cut workforce of mechanics. But the FAA's own Aviation Safety Inspectors say NWA's plan is not working.

In a letter of support for the striking mechanics, James H. Pratt, a safety inspectors union official, wrote, "Thirteen FAA Airworthiness Inspectors assigned for the entire world system of Northwest, for the hundreds of locations where Northwest is going to do maintenance, including those with replacement workers. I hardly think that qualifies as 'closely monitoring.' I guess the FAA Headquarters spokeswoman must think 13 is your lucky number if you are planning on flying on Northwest Airlines right now."

Other unions show solidarity

Much is made in the media about the other Northwest unions continuing to work. Yet ticket agents who are union members came out of the terminal to report all the cancellations to the strikers. Custodial staff drove up to the picket line at the terminal when rain started, distributing large plastic bags as improvised rain gear for their picketing co-workers. The striking men and women enthusiastically greeted their supporters.

On Aug. 21, according to the Detroit News, the solidarity continued. A Northwest flight attendant dropped off a stack of pizzas, and a mechanic with another airline wrote a $100 check for the strike fund.

Are there any workers at any airline who haven't followed the restructuring of the industry and the attacks on pensions, wages and benefits, who don't fear for their jobs and their livelihoods? Those workers too are looking for a way to fight back but are not sure that leaving their jobs is the best or only way to do it.

The strike headquarters itself shows that the AMFA is not alone and is prepared to fight. Tucked behind a nearby UAW Local hall, the tented encampment had the air of a military operation. A support statement from concerned Metro-Detroit unionists titled "Don't Cross a Picket Line in the Middle of a War" was warmly received. In the weeks before the strike deadline, AMFA held daily demonstrations picketing area hotels housing scab replacement mechanics.

Mechanics on the picket line wore T-shirts with a coiled cobra rearing up and the words, "When provoked we will [strike]."

The AMFA strike is a defensive action forced on the mechanics and cleaners. Although the media is seeking to pit worker against worker, the AMFA's picket-line strategy in the first days of the strike was not directed at other union workers at Metro but at the corporation that doesn't agree with the AMFA's motto that "Safety in the Air Begins with Quality Maintenance on the Ground."

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