Crazy Like a Fox

Categories: Economy

Why Northwest Wanted a Strike, and its Mechanics Had No Choice

Here we are in day five of AMFA's strike against Northwest Airlines and, as anticipated, there have been some blown tires and cancellations and safety-related intakes of breath, but the planes are mostly flying, and the mechanics are looking like the house band on the Titanic. For my money, the only real question unanswered is why is it that today Nick Coleman looks like the only member of the local mainstream media establishment who has strapped on any reportorial cojones at all. That this is noteworthy is telling.

Since the strikewatch clock set up by virtually every news outlet of record in these good cities ran down to zero and started ticking upward again, precious little has been reported that goes beyond handicapping the number of planes grounded and local travelers disrupted. Today's Star Tribune does carry one analysis of Northwest's "hardball" position, but it's written by an Associated Press staffer and we're hard-pressed not to conclude that it was plucked from the wires because the New York Times--which Twin Citians can have delivered to their doorsteps, remember--Monday ran a revealing, disturbing background piece.

Over the last 18 months, the airline analyzed 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...

...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.

In other words, the airline saw a chance to get rid of the peskiest of its unions, send a message to the others not to rock the boat, and reinvent its workforce. Not only do the airline's very well compensated brass envision breaking the mechanics union, they envision kicking JetBlue's tailfins when it's all over. No wonder Northwest set terms that were so drastic there was no way, even pride aside, the mechanics could accept them. (On the off chance the mechanics had agreed, the airline wouldn't have had to honor its contracts for long: Following the last round of layoffs, so many AMFA members had been laid off that the average Northwest mechanic is now eligible for AARP membership.)

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.

Now, in a previous era this might very well have caused folks to describe the union work-stoppage as a lockout, a strike that management, by its inflexibility or its refusal to honor the union's contract, makes inevitable. And once upon a time the National Labor Relations Board, which is supposed to sort out labor disputes, would call a lockout a lockout, which is one way (albeit the hard way) pickets would win a strike. Alas, like most everything else about these good United States these days, the NLRB has become captive to the flow of political money and, well, if you've made it this far in this post you read the snippet above where the New York Times reports that Northwest asked the White House not to intervene and, never mind that the rationale for the president's ability to quash airline strikes is the vital importance of unfettered transportation, the White House complied.

No wonder Northwest has been willing to spend more on lobbying and strike preparations than it wants in concessions from its mechanics. Just like the billions it has been willing to spend in a recession to replace its creaky DC-10s and DC-9s, the strike is nothing more than a business expense associated with a long-term restructuring. Northwest has already announced a plan to begin replacing members of the flight attendants' union with much cheaper foreign stewards.

Why haven't the full-time transportation reporters at our local dailies--who certainly read the New York Times--reported this much? Why hasn't the Strib's Mike Meyers, a terrific enterprise reporter with serious airline and business chops? Huh. Maybe Coleman was telegraphing something when he noted that a striking airline mechanic makes about what the Strib's unionized reporters make, and that the captains of industry would like to paint that $60,000-$70,000 salary as luxe living.

The price of Northwest's stock rose yesterday by more than 5 percent. Our stock as a society that values hard work and industry plummeted.


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