Solidarity forsaken

The venue spoke volumes when a fundraising dinner was held Saturday in Detroit for members of the mechanics union on strike against Northwest Airlines.

The event was to be held at International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 58 union hall. But members of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA) — which represents 4,400 mechanics, cleaners and custodians on strike nationwide — say a rival union asked officers in the electrical workers international to turn the strikers away. Leaders of the electricians union complied, and the order came down for the local to lock its doors.

It’s a powerful symbol of what’s happening in this strike. This is a walkout with two compelling story lines — one involving a traditional battle between labor and management, the other exposing a fissure within the union movement itself.

The International Association of Machinists, which has been losing members to rival AMFA, belongs to the AFL-CIO; AMFA does not.

Recent news stories have portrayed the AMFA as a “maverick” organization with a history of adding to its membership by “raiding” other unions. But it’s not as if the AMFA was shanghaiing the unsuspecting. “These workers joined us as the result of a democratic process,” says Steve McFarlane, AMFA assistant national director. “They voted to join us.”

As a result, McFarlane says, “the losers of those elections are so bitter and petty they are doing everything in their power to make sure their members don’t support us.”

And so it was that the strikers, their families, a few politicians and rank-and-file supporters from a variety of local unions — more than 100 people in all — gathered at the Anchor Bar in downtown Detroit instead of meeting inside a union hall.

In the face of this abandonment, there were fiery calls for solidarity.

“The whole labor movement should be behind this. We should have Metro Airport shut down,” one autoworker shouted during a question-and-answer session, getting cheers in response. But rather than widespread support from organized labor, the AMFA is largely flying solo in this dispute. Unions representing other Northwest workers — pilots, flight attendants, baggage handlers — have failed to honor picket lines. Their continued presence on the job, along with the replacement mechanics brought in by an airline that spent 18 months preparing for this strike, have allowed Northwest to keep its planes in the air and put the AMFA in a very tough spot.

AMFA officials say they tried to avoid a walkout, but their hand was forced by a management team intent on union-busting. Financially ailing Northwest — the airline says it’s been losing $4 million a day during the first six months of this year — is demanding $176 million in concessions from the union, including a 25 percent reduction in pay, benefit cuts and the elimination of more than half of the airline’s AMFA work force.

The extent of job cuts puts the union in a virtually untenable position. “How do you ask your members to eliminate more than 50 percent of their jobs?” asks Steve McFarlane, the union’s assistant national director. “That’s why we went on strike. Half our people would have lost their jobs. Our only hope was to fight back.”

For its part, Northwest insists it’s not trying to bust the union.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” airline spokesman Kurt Ebehoch says. All the airline’s unions have been asked to make significant concessions to help Northwest survive.”

McFarlane says the union’s last offer to the airline included a 20 percent pay cut and the willingness to accept the elimination of up to 1,300 jobs. Those cuts would come on top of more than 5,500 AMFA jobs already cut by the airline in recent years. He contends that the union’s offer meets Northwest’s target; the airline insists that it doesn’t.

Experts are offering mixed opinions regarding the broader implications of the strike. Some say it could be a mistake to draw any big-picture conclusions because of the unique set of factors at play: a strike involving a union that is outside the AFL-CIO and has strained relations with other unions, the specific relationship between AMFA — which prides itself on being more militant than other unions — and Northwest, and the precarious financial state of the airline industry as a whole.

On the other hand, this strike involves issues facing many American workers. As with other industries, Northwest has been outsourcing much of the work its mechanics do, relying increasingly on independent contractors in America as well as foreign labor in other countries to perform jobs previously done here. (Northwest responds that it is behind the industry curve when it comes to outsourcing, and is doing so in an attempt to remain competitive with other carriers.)

Certainly, it’s not like the airlines are the only American industry facing hard times, resulting in increased pressure for workers to make significant concessions regarding pay, pension and job rollbacks.

Just take a look at what’s going on in the auto industry.

If Northwest is able to defeat AMFA, it and other employers will be emboldened, says Peter Rachleff, a labor history professor — and open union advocate — at Macalester College in Minnesota.

“The principle at issue here is, is there solidarity?” Rachleff says. “Is organized labor organized, and is the labor movement a movement? This is a real situation where the existing unions are going to answer that question.”

So far, those who believe in the solidarity of the labor movement can’t be heartened by the way this strike is playing out. There has been a scattering of support for the AMFA from unions around the country, but on the whole, as one striker said Saturday, “There’s too much politics, too much infighting.”

The consequence of that isn’t lost on Frank Marzec, a Northwest mechanic for 21 years. Asked about the evident lack of solidarity from the top echelons of organized labor, and the effect it would have on his union’s ability to win this fight, he offered a measured response: “It’s going to be an uphill battle.”

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]
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