AMFA Stands Up Against Concessions at Northwest Airlines

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by Andrew Pollack / November 2005 issue of Socialist Action newspaper

On Oct. 14, almost two months into their strike against Northwest Airlines, the officers of the
Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA) agreed to let members vote on a new offer from management. AMFA officials said there was nothing good in the offer, and in fact it was so horrendous it’s likely they were being sincere when they said that presenting it for a vote was not a sell-out but rather a chance for the members to tell the company that they remained united.

The management proposal that initially forced a strike on Aug. 19 would have preserved only 2750 mechanics’ jobs, with 26 weeks of severance pay for those laid-off (and all cleaner jobs would have been cut). An offer made a month into the strike would have preserved only 1080 mechanics’ jobs with 16 weeks of severance for the rest. The offer that would have been
put to a vote this month offered only 500 jobs and four weeks of severance!

As it turns out, the vote will not be held anyway: At the last minute management inserted new language in the proposed agreement governing interaction between returning union members and scabs, and AMFA correctly cancelled the vote.

In addition to job cuts, management’s pre-strike offer included a 26 percent wage cut and the replacement of defined benefit pensions with a 401K plan. Management spent millions training not only scab mechanics but flight attendants as well, in case the latter walked
out in sympathy. On Sept. 13 Northwest declared scab mechanic would permanently replace strikers.

Support for the strikers has been woefully inadequate—at Northwest itself, among airline unions at other carriers, and from the broader labor movement. But the cancelled vote, and Northwest’s acceleration of scab hiring, may force the strikers to regroup and step up solidarity efforts. The union has hired Corporate Campaign, which may be useful for
purposes of researching and exposing the bosses’ financial lies and misdeeds. But solidarity in action is the real need now.

Northwest exploits divisions in labor

From the beginning of the strike, officials of other unions—from the International Association of Machinists (IAM) and Air Line Pilots’ Association (ALPA) at Northwest, to the heads of the AFL-CIO—have denied AMFA support, claiming it was a breakaway union that had raided IAM locals.

It’s not surprising that IAM officials showed no support for AMFA strikers. Unfortunately, they tried to cover their backstabbing with misrepresentations of AMFA’s bargaining approach, claiming—incorrectly—that AMFA was trying to shift portions of the billions in cuts the bosses wanted onto other unions on the property. But in fact, AMFA repeatedly pointed out how all unions were in the fight together, and AMFA negotiator Jeff Mathews warned that “some groups, including the IAM, may be asked to shoulder a disproportionately larger share of the new target amount.”

Northwest flight attendants and officials of their Professional Flight Attendants Association, themselves having broken away from the Teamsters over the same kind of poor service that impelled AMFA to split from the IAM, were more supportive verbally. But despite widespread sympathy for the strikers, knowing they were next, flight attendants didn’t feel able to stand
alone with AMFA and narrowly rejected going out in sympathy.

Naturally, Northwest management used the division between unions as a chance to step up its attack on other workers on the property. On Sept. 14 it filed for bankruptcy, asking a bankruptcy court judge to let it void all its union contracts and threatening to dump its pension obligations on the PBGC. The following week, management announced it would lay off 1400 flight attendants (out of 8500 working on May 31) and 400 pilots by January.

Northwest also announced it would use more locally hired, non-union flight attendants on overseas flights and on domestic flights on planes with fewer than 100 seats.

The broadened assault has not yet led to company-wide solidarity, with each union leadership still trying to cut its own best of the worst deal. Not only will this go-it-alone bargaining style prove fruitless at the one carrier, but it will accelerate the most recent
phase of the decades-long spiral that in the last year saw massive cuts at United and USAir, who also used the bankruptcy ploy.

Lack of solidarity at the top

This is a moment of crisis in the labor movement, symbolized by a pointless split coming after decades of disorganized retreats. Yet top labor leaders are repeating the same mistakes made in the PATCO strike of 1981, which, along with the 1979 concessions at Chrysler, set off a tidal wave of takeback demands by bosses throughout the economy.

As they did with PATCO, union “leaders” are finding special reasons to label AMFA as not deserving of support. Said AFL-CIO head John Sweeney: “We don’t think the strategy of this so-called union is the right one to achieve a contract. To undertake a strike without resources or a plan … it’s the workers who wind up making the sacrifice.”

PATCO, they said at the time, was too high paying and politically conservative; AMFA is a raider and outside the Federation.

An internal pre-strike memo circulated within the AFL-CIO stated, “If there is a strike, AMFA may ask CLCs [Central Labor Councils] and State Feds for support: food banks, money, turnout at AMFA picket lines and at rallies etc. State Feds and CLCs should not provide AMFA with such support, unless the national AFL-CIO instructs them to do so.”

Furthermore, all requests to honor pickets were to be referred to ALPA and the IAM.

The defection of members from the IAM to AMFA—caused first and foremost by the former’s repeated sell-outs—is only one reason for union officials’ hostility. The other is AMFA’s refusal on many (but not all) occasions to surrender as easily as other unions.

As we wrote in the June 2005 issue of Socialist Action, describing concessions at United and USAir, other unions have repeated today’s bureaucratic mantra, that members’ only hope was to surrender so as to save “our” boss. Thus one official, quoted anonymously on Jonathan Tasini’s “Working Life” blog, claimed “They [AMFA] are getting their just deserts.
These are a bunch of idiots. Everyone else in the industry bellied up to the bar to help these companies survive.”

Whatever union militants may think of the wisdom of AMFA’s course of independent craft unionism—as opposed to fighting within the IAM and among airline unions in general for a more democratic, fighting approach—we must stand squarely on their side. Their refusal to
knuckle under should be seen as an inspiration for all workers seeking to halt the downward slide in our rights and living and working conditions.

But most union leaders have more important concerns. They want to avoid the embarrassment coming their way if AMFA succeeds in even partially fending off
management’s attacks, in which case they would have to explain to their members why they couldn’t have done the same. And they’re annoyed by any challenge to their thoroughly ingrained belief that the fate of the members is completely dependent on the good fortunes
of the company.

Honorable exceptions

Despite the lack of adequate support, the strikers’ morale and determination have stayed high, and very few have crossed the picket line. The union has held rallies and fundraisers and sought to expose safety violations by management through press work and community forums.

Early on in the strike, the union exposed (and a handful of media reported) the reassignment of an FAA inspector who refused to obey his bosses’ directives to go easy on Northwest safety violations.

Rank and filers from other unions have done what they can to counter official apathy. Small but significant numbers of IAM baggage handlers have been respecting picket lines. The PFAA has publicized and participated in AMFA rallies and has said it will defend the right
of individual workers who refuse to cross picket lines.

AFSCME Local 3800, representing clerical workers at the University of Minnesota (now in negotiations themselves), has brought members to strike-support actions. And vibrant, large community-support groups are active in the carrier’s main hubs in the Twin Cities and Detroit.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union, the Aircraft Engineers International, the Professional Airways Systems Specialists (representing FAA inspectors), the newly-formed Minnesota Change to Win Coalition (including state affiliates of SEIU, Teamsters, UFCW, UNITE HERE, Laborers, and the Carpenters), a handful of central labor councils, and
a number of UAW locals have announced support for the strikers.

The UAW international donated $880,000 in support. There has also been at least one display of the kind of power that could turn the tide, when Teamster engineers and rail workers refused to cross AMFA picket lines set up at the CSX rail yard in Toledo.
Ninety-five percent of the yard’s Detroit-bound freight traffic was bottled up until a court issued an
injunction ordering the picket lines to come down. In a column about the recent AFL-CIO split, labor historian Peter Rachleff, a leader of the Twin Cities support committee and earlier a leader of the solidarity movement with UFCW Local P-9, used the AMFA strike as a telling example of union leaders’ failure to come up with new approaches to any of labor’s ills.

Rachleff wrote: “History suggests the best way to revive the labor movement is by mobilizing around a specific group of workers who face the central issues of the era. Such was the case with the great railroad strike of 1877, the Pullman strike and boycott of 1894, the steel strike of 1919, the Minneapolis Teamsters’ strike of 1934, the meatpacking strike of 1948, the steelworkers’ strike of 1959, and others. “Some local labor leaders and activists here in the
Twin Cities, and in Detroit, Boston, San Francisco, Portland, Oregon, and elsewhere get it, and they have offered support and material assistance to the NWA strikers.

“But most of today’s labor leaders, especially at a national level, seem to be studying different pages from the labor history books, pages which detail the conflict between the Knights of Labor and the nascent AFL in the 1880s, the conflict between the AFL and the
new Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the early 20th century, that between the AFL and the new Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the 1930s and 1940s, the refusal of labor officialdom to support PATCO in 1981 and the Hormel strikers in 1985-86.

“In these and similar situations unions crossed other unions’ picket lines, encouraged the taking of striking workers’ jobs, and signed contracts which undercut other unions. Here was—and is—the embodiment of the IWW’s scorn of the AFL as the “American Separation of Labor.”

Rachleff is entirely correct about what’s at stake for labor as a whole. We should learn from the honorable examples of those who’ve stepped up to the plate in support of AMFA strikers and spread solidarity as wide and as strong as we can!

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