About 1,000 striking airline workers and their supporters rallied August 27 in Bloomington in support of members of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA) who are on strike against Northwest Airlines.
“The reason we are out here is to oppose the company’s efforts to break our union,” said Omar Mohammad, an 18-year veteran mechanic. “I’m determined to fight to the last whatever it takes—even if it means losing our jobs.”
The NWA mechanics’ strike struggle has become ground zero in the conflict between the labor movement and management in the United States.
A letter of solidarity for the Transport Workers Union expresses the seriousness with which many in the labor movement view the struggle. “The defeat of the mechanics would lead to union busting throughout the airlines and other industries.”
Four thousand four hundred mechanics, cleaners, and custodians organized by the Airline Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA) have been on strike since August 19. The workers are resisting steep concession demands from the airline that include a 22-26 percent pay cut, a freeze in pensions, and increasing the number of mechanics’ jobs that are subcontracted out.
Northwest management says that it needs $1.1 billion in cuts to keep the airline afloat. The carrier has demanded $176 million of that come from workers organized by AMFA. “It is imperative that Northwest lower its labor costs to be competitive. Failure to achieve the needed $176 million in savings from AMFA will leave the airline at increased financial risk,” said Julie Showers, vice president-labor in a company news release.
The company has executed a strike-breaking plan that included the hiring of more than 1,500 replacement workers and hundreds of managers.
“During the past 18 months, Northwest developed a comprehensive contingency plan that includes expanded vendor relationships to ensure that the airline continues to operate normally,” said the airline’s president and chief executive officer, Doug Steenland.
Solidarity: a necessity
The necessity of solidarity among the unions at Northwest in the face of company attacks was the dominant theme expressed among many workers at the rally.
“The weapon we have is solidarity,” said Kip Hedges, a baggage handler at Northwest Airline. Hedges’ remarks were enthusiastically received because he is a member of the International Association of Machinist (IAM), whose leadership has instructed their members not to honor AMFA’s picket lines. Despite this, about 50 members of the IAM have exercised their right under provisions of Article 26 of their contract to honor the strike. In the Twin Cities terminal, these workers have begun to call themselves the Article 26 group.
“This is the battle of Gettysburg. . . . We are standing on the crossroads of history,” explained Hedges.
In addition to the IAM, whose leadership has had a particularly hostile relationship with AMFA officials since Northwest mechanics voted to split with the IAM and join AMFA in 1998, officials of the Professional Flight Attendants Association (PFAA) and the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA) have instructed their members not to honor the picket lines.
“I’m asking the flight attendants not to cross the picket line,” said Peggy Labinski to chants of “walk, walk, walk.” Labinski is a flight attendant who was fired last week for honoring the strike. “They’re coming after all of us,” Labinski said. “For the flight attendants not to realize this is crazy.”
A number of other figures also spoke at the rally, including Omar Jamal of the Somali Justice Center and Minneapolis mayoral candidates representing the DFL and Green parties.
Black workers discuss strike and strategy
Many workers have turned their thinking toward the question of formulating an effective strike strategy. “The unions have to get back to the basics,” said Farouk Olajuwon, a cleaner who has been with Northwest for eight years.
During a discussion at the rally, a strike supporter expressed the need for all of the workers to be in one union as the only way to fight effectively. Olajuwon responded that “Sometimes it’s better to start where you are at. Just because other workers are in different unions don’t mean nothing—it’s about action together!”
Olajuwon continued, “Action is what is important. We act like we got unity, we show that we have unity in action and we don’t need a piece of paper showing that we are in the same organization—that can come later.”
“If we can get everyone on the picket line, we can make an impact not only on the strike but in the labor movement as a whole,” said Larry Murrell. Murrell is a cleaner who has worked at Northwest since 1988.
Murrell has lived through attacks on unions by companies before. A native of Chicago, Murrell worked for years at General Motors Corporation in the company’s Fisher Body plant.
In the early 1980s, the company closed up operations at the plant, leaving hundreds of workers like Murrell jobless.
“I was trying to understand why Northwest would pay all of that money to scabs to come and take our jobs instead of settling with us,” said Murrell.
“My friend said, ‘You’re looking short-term and they are looking long-term — in the long-term, it is going to be cheaper to replace you,’” said Murrell.
Murrell spoke about the deteriorating conditions for working people in the U.S. and consequences of the battle for workers of all nationalities. “In the future, it’s not going to be just the Black people fighting—it’s going to be the rich against the poor.”