Mesaba unions preparing for strike

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After bankrupt Mesaba Airlines failed to negotiate concessions with its major unions,. U.S. Judge Gregory Kishel on July 14 granted Mesaba the right to unilaterally impose contract terms on its employees.

In his decision, appealed by both the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) and the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), Kishel urged continued negotiation, asking that both sides “work to save this airline.”

But if Mesaba imposes the 19.4 percent labor-cost savings it is reportedly seeking, most of its unions have vowed to strike. Some have even prepared for it.

“We can’t strike until the airline imposes,” Tom Wychor, chairman of the Mesaba pilots union, said. “If they violate the status quo, we have the ability to strike. At some point, we have to have the right to use the tools available to us.”

To emphasize that point, the pilots and mechanics have strike centers up and running.

The pilots’ center is far more high tech than a typical union strike headquarters. Yes, there are phone banks, pizza and picket signs, including one that reads: “What does Paul Foley do?” That’s a reference to the president and CEO of MAIR Holdings, the parent company of Mesaba that unions say has siphoned off as much as $120 million in profits from Mesaba – money that could have prevented the bankruptcy.

But the pilots’ strike headquarters – on the 9th floor of an office building south of the airport – includes a corner office with two walls of windows overlooking an airport runway. Portable radios crackle with communications on air traffic control frequencies. Video cameras are available to film landings.

But what really catches the eye are two banks of computers, loaded with software remarkably similar to what air traffic controllers use. On these screens, volunteers and staff track flights in and out of Mesaba’s main hubs: Minneapolis-St. Paul, Detroit and Memphis. They pay particular attention not only to Mesaba flights, but also to Northwest flights and flights by Northwest’s other regional carrier: Pinnacle.

Working out the logistics
“We can find any plane in the country,” said Mike Dockman, strike committee chairman for the pilots union at Mesaba. “We need to monitor flights in case someone’s taking our flying. We need to know who’s flying each aircraft.”

Northwest, Mesaba and Pinnacle serve about 60 percent of the same cities, meaning “we’re each capable of replacing the other,” Wychor said. “We need to show the company that we have the capability of knowing where our planes are, that we can protect our flying.”

The nature of air travel makes the pilots’ more sophisticated operation necessary, Wychor said. “We don’t have a central plant. We have pilots all over the country.” Mesaba flies to more than 30 states and several provinces in Canada.

Pilot strike operations have evolved from the days when members kept paper logs of planes flying in an out of an airport. Sometimes spotters, dressed in camouflage with high-power binoculars, camped in fields and woods near airports. Some of that still goes on, Wychor said, but ALPA is now able to do most of its monitoring remotely.

Working together
Tracking flights is only part of the logistical challenge facing the union. “We have to know where every pilot is at the moment we call a strike,” Wychor said. “We have to be able to reach people on the ramp, tell them to walk away from their airplane, and have a way to get them and their crew home.”

Preparations include a pocket manual that guides pilots on how to proceed in a variety of situations. The national union has dedicated as much as $2 million from its contingency fund to support strike center operations, he said.
The strike center opened May 1 to begin training volunteers and to develop a record on what typical operations for Northwest carriers look like. “We’re listening, but we’re not fully engaged yet,” Wychor said.

If Mesaba imposes an unacceptable contract, that will change.

“We’ll go live then,” Wychor said.

This article was written by former Union Advocate editor Michael Kuchta; current editor Michael Moore contributed to this story. Reprinted from The Advocate, the official newspaper of the St. Paul Trades and Labor Assembly. Used by permission. E-mail The Advocate at: advocate@stpaulunions.org

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