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Northwest Airlines' success a blow for labor

Northwest Airlines Corp.'s success in keeping its planes flying even after its mechanics walked off the job early Saturday could embolden other companies to play hardball with their unions.
Striking Northwest Airlines mechanic James Stachowiak pickets outside a Northwest Airlines maintenance hanger at Detroit Metropolitan Airport in Romulus, Mich.Paul Sancya / AP
/ Source: Reuters

Northwest Airlines Corp.'s success in keeping its planes flying even after its mechanics walked off the job early Saturday could embolden other companies to play hardball with their unions.

While the No. 4 U.S. carrier could still hit turbulence in the coming weeks, it has so far effectively used replacement workers and third-party contractors to replace some 4,400 striking mechanics, cleaners and custodians.

Its apparent success could send tremors through other unions at Northwest, its beleaguered airline rivals and even other U.S. corporations, further weakening the organized labor movement.

"American employers, looking at this, can be very much emboldened," said Gary Chaison, a professor at Clark University. "They will think that if they see such a situation, they can regain the offensive in bargaining."

Divisions in organized labor were laid bare last month when the Teamsters union and service workers union split off from the AFL-CIO, the largest U.S. union coalition, but that was just the latest blow to a movement which has seen its membership plunge.

U.S. Labor Department statistics show 12.5 percent of wage and salary workers were union members in 2004, down from 20.1 percent in 1983.

Especially grave for the Northwest mechanics is that members of their fellow unions seem to have had few qualms about crossing the picket lines, he said.

"It's really a sign of a weakened labor movement and one that's in disarray," Chaison said.

Most immediately, the mechanics' failure to substantially disrupt Eagan, Minnesota-based Northwest's flights -- though they have been running later than normal -- will likely put pressure on the airline's other unions.

Northwest has already won $265 million in wage and benefit concessions from its pilots, along with $35 million from its salaried and management employees. But it is still far short of its $1.1 billion target.

Next in line?
The union has demonstrated its willingness to use tough tactics with its flight attendants' union just as it did with the mechanics, training 1,500 replacement workers to take their jobs if they opt to strike.

"If things continue as they are, the strike is effectively over and AMFA will be badly defeated," said John Budd, a professor at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management. "That has risks for the future of AMFA at Northwest and doesn't bode very well for the flight attendants who are next in line."

The AMFA strike is the latest sign of unions' loss of leverage at airlines. United Airlines has used bankruptcy court protection to win more than $3 billion a year in total labor savings and jettison its defined pension plans.

Threatened strikes have not happened, although United's flight attendants have picketed some airports.

Delta Air Lines Inc., widely seen as the weakest of the traditional U.S. airlines, may take similar steps if it follows United into bankruptcy, analysts have said.

U.S. airlines, in turmoil since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, have already fired or furloughed thousands of mechanics, pilots and other workers, giving the industry a deep reservoir of replacement workers in the event of strikes.

Before the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon rocked the industry, airline unions were widely regarded as some of the country's strongest, because their rank and file were skilled and highly trained.

Their current weakness could be a warning signal to unions in other industries which are still regarded as strongholds, like automakers General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler's Chrysler.

"If this strike continues to go how it seems to be going, a lot more people are going to have to say, 'Wait a minute, that could happen to me too,"' Budd said.