Paul Sancya  /  AP
Northwest Airlines striking mechanics walk the picket line at Detroit Metropolitan Airport in Romulus, Mich., Aug. 24. The strike could usher in a new period of bare-knuckle bargaining, but airline unions have been giving up ground in their contract negotiations for years if not decades.
By Martin Wolk
updated 8/24/2005 8:44:42 PM ET 2005-08-25T00:44:42

It remains to be seen whether Northwest Airlines can operate indefinitely without its unionized mechanics, but the strike against the nation’s No. 4 carrier is being seen as a watershed event for labor relations in the embattled airline industry.

The 5-day-old strike by more than 4,000 members of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association is unique in some ways but also points to new battles over pensions and outsourcing facing airlines and their unions as they struggle to adapt to a rapidly changing marketplace.

“Other airlines are definitely looking at this,” said Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. “They will probably make demands and feel emboldened by what happened at Northwest. This is a major shift in bargaining power that is being demonstrated.”

He said Northwest executives aggressively pursued a contract that they knew was unacceptable to the mechanics union because “they were not fearful of a strike,” having prepared a costly and detailed plan to continue operating through a work stoppage.

“If one side doesn’t fear a strike anymore than there is a greater chance of there being a strike,” he said.

Airline strikes are relatively rare largely because the heavily unionized industry is regulated by the federal Railway Labor Act, which allows the president to step in and prevent walkouts, as President Bush did in March 2001 when the same union threatened to strike Northwest.

But this time around neither side asked the White House to intervene and Bush stayed on the sidelines. That triggered a strike that has drawn comparisons to the epic 1989 showdown between mechanics and Eastern Airlines, which ultimately went out of business.

“The very fact that Northwest is even operating is historic,” said Terry Trippler, who follows the industry for 1-800-CheapSeats, a travel agency. “Companies dream of that, and Northwest did it.”

The Northwest strike could usher in a new period of bare-knuckle bargaining, but airline unions have been giving up ground in their contract negotiations for years if not decades.

Experts in labor relations say airline unions have been granting concessions since at least the early 1980s, but past rounds of concessionary bargaining generally were tied to economic recessions. This time around, union givebacks have accelerated even as other sectors of the economy have bounced back convincingly from the 2001 recession.

Two of the nation’s biggest carriers — United and U.S. Airways — are operating under bankruptcy protection, and unions there have been forced to accept billions of dollars in concessions as well as a certain reduction in pension benefits. Unions at American Airlines have accepted $1.6 billion in concessions, while ailing Delta Air Lines has notified its pilots union that cash levels have fallen below a point that could trigger new concession talks.

“What is new about the current period is that in the past it was the weaker carriers that tended to press the hardest. Today it is far more generalized, and there doesn’t appear to be any end in sight,” said Harley Shaiken, a labor expert and professor at the University of California in Berkeley.

The auto industry went through a similar period of widespread concessionary bargaining the early 1980s, but there was far more collaboration and less animosity than what is being seen in the current showdown between labor and the airline industry.

“It was very painful, but there was no talk of replacement workers or breaking the unions. And what they gave up was relatively modest compared to what is being talked about now in the airline industry,” Shaiken said. “What we are looking at now is a very profound restructuring of wages and rules in the industry. And there is little expectation that any of this will be regained.”

In some ways, the Northwest labor dispute is unique, especially because the airline was able to correctly predict that the independent union would get little support from other labor groups in its walkout. Pilots and flight attendants are crossing the mechanics’ picket lines to work, and major unions like the AFL-CIO have offered little support.

“I think that Northwest’s management had a pretty good idea of just how isolated the mechanics would be in this particular situation, and they were correct in that,” said Michael Belzer, associate professor of industrial relations at Wayne State University.

From the union’s perspective, the company’s demands that it accept both $176 million in concessions plus a work force reduction of more than 50 percent add up to nothing less than an attempt to smash the union.

“We are willing to help the company. We are skilled, career-minded technicians,” said O.V. Delle-Femina, national director of the union. “I’m telling you right now we would give them $176 million if they keep the jobs. We’re not going to give it to them without getting anything back. For what? Because of mismanagement?”

A spokesman for Northwest denied the union-busting charge but said it is essential that the airline be allowed to outsource more of its airline maintenance work to outside contractors.

“We worked diligently to try to reach a consensual agreement with AMFA,” said the spokesman, Kurt Ebenhoch. “But because of the company’s substantial losses and the competitive disadvantages in areas of maintenance we had no other choice but to seek these changes.”

Northwest says it completed 96.9 percent of its scheduled flights Monday, compared with nearly 99 percent reported last August. The company has declined to say how many flights have been delayed, although a random survey of 396 out of about 5,600 flights scheduled over the first four days of the strike found that half were delayed by an average of nearly an hour, according to a report on the Web site

Joe Brancatelli, publisher of the Web site, said the delays and cancellations are likely to get worse in coming days as the airline runs up against end-of-month regulations limiting crew duty times.

Many analysts suspect Northwest’s problems ultimately could end up in bankruptcy court, as chief executive Douglas Steenland has warned the company might have to file for protection, especially if Congress does not pass a new law that would give the company more time to fulfill its pension fund obligations.

Chaison, the Clark University professor, said the mechanics might not mind bringing their case before a bankruptcy judge, figuring the result can hardly be much worse than what Northwestern is offering.

“AMFA is willing to take its chances in bankruptcy court, which really I think is a sign of their desperation,” he said.

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