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High Stakes for All Unions

Showdown at Northwest

by LEE SUSTAR

Will organized labor stand by as Northwest Airlines–backed by Wall Street and the White House–tries to destroy the striking mechanics union?

The walkout by 4,400 members of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA) August 20 has posed that question point-blank. But unions in both factions of the split at this summer’s AFL-CIO convention in Chicago have scores to settle with AMFA and have refused to offer support.

The International Association of Machinists (IAM), loyal to AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, has not only instructed its members to cross AMFA’s picket lines, but do some of their work.

Having lost several representation elections to AMFA, most recently at United Airlines, IAM President Thomas Buffenbarger is more interested in wrecking AMFA than holding the line on Northwest’s and other airlines’ demands for concessions. The Airline Pilots Association, which struck Northwest in 1998, is flying planes maintained by scab mechanics.

For its part, the AFL-CIO is repaying Buffenbarger for his support by providing justifications for this strikebreaking. Before the strike, the federation’s organizing director, Stewart Acuff, denounced AMFA as a "renegade, raiding organization," adding that AMFA is "not in the house of labor."

The IAM has made similar arguments, accusing AMFA members of having an elitist attitude toward less-skilled ramp workers. But while AMFA’s go-it-alone craft unionism marks a retreat from the solidarity of industrial unionism, IAM officials have no one to blame but themselves for mechanics’ decision to abandon their union, which has presided over one disaster after another.

It was this same charge of "elitism," after all, that the AFL-CIO used to withhold support from striking air traffic controllers in the PATCO union in 1981. They were abandoned as President Ronald Reagan fired 10,500 strikers and destroyed their union. Since then, U.S. union leaders have solemnly vowed never to allow such a thing to happen again.

Except, apparently, where AMFA is involved. George W. Bush, who promised early in his first term to ban airline strikes, has given the green light to this one following extensive briefings from Northwest lobbyists.

This constitutes the most direct White House intervention in a labor battle since Bush invoked the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act during the lockout of West Coast dockworkers in 2002. Airline security, supposedly a paramount concern in the post-September 11 era, is a much lower priority for the administration than crushing a strike.

Meanwhile, Wall Street was "rooting" for AMFA to go on strike, as the New York Times put it. The way the big financial houses see it, Northwest management’s strategy of running scabs, prepared over an 18-month period, is a no-lose proposition.

Northwest has already cut the number of AMFA jobs in half since 1998. When the strike began, the company announced that 865 AMFA members who clean airplanes will be permanently replaced, and has hinted that it may soon do the same to mechanics.

If management prevails, other airlines will demand similar cuts or provoke strikes, drawing on a pool of unemployed mechanics created by years of layoffs and outsourcing to low-wage, nonunion maintenance shops.

Even if the strike drives Northwest into bankruptcy, there’s a silver lining for the industry. A bankruptcy court judge would no doubt push concessions–as has happened both at US Airways and United, driving industry labor costs still lower. If Northwest or another airline ends up out of business, overcapacity in the industry would be reduced, and profits for the survivors would improve.

In short, the AMFA strike, while involving a relatively small number of workers, will have a far-reaching impact on the airline industry. It highlights the fact that airline unions–AMFA included–haven’t avoided an all-out battle by accepting concessions, but merely postponed it until the employers decided that the time was right.

If AMFA goes down to defeat, a similar onslaught awaits other unions in the airlines and far beyond.

This might seem an ideal moment for leaders of the breakaway Change to Win union coalition to grab the spotlight from the AFL-CIO by making good on their tough talk and championing AMFA’s cause. Instead: silence.

That’s because Teamsters President James Hoffa saw his union replaced with AMFA by Southwest Airlines mechanics in 2002, and he’s no more eager than Buffenbarger to see AMFA score a victory. (The Teamsters were also ousted as representatives of Northwest’s flight attendants in 2002, replaced by the independent Professional Flight Attendants Association, or PFFA, which is also crossing AMFA’s picket lines).

Besides rivalry, there’s another factor in AMFA’s isolation: Its willingness to strike when leaders of other airline unions only bluff and bluster about fighting back, even as jobs are slashed, pensions wiped out, and wages and benefits cut.

In the calculation of union leaders like Buffenbarger, it’s better to accept concessions to try to preserve "partnership" with management rather than risk a strike that could lead to the collapse of one or another airline. A coordinated strategy to fight concessions and protect jobs–between unions and across the industry–is inconceivable to such officials.

They wouldn’t dream of replicating the kind of solidarity action seen recently at British Airways in the U.K., where picket lines by a small group of workers at a food service contractor shut down the entire airline.

That example could be followed in the U.S.–legally. That’s because transportation is the one private-sector industry in the U.S. where such secondary boycotts are legal, since the industry is governed by the Railway Labor Act, rather than the Taft-Hartley law.

Pickets could legally be spread to shut down operations throughout the airline industry. But instead of official labor solidarity, there is scabbing–ordered by top union officials.

Fortunately, the response is better on the picket lines themselves. Mechanics from other unions and labor activists have turned out to support AMFA in several airports across the U.S. Strike support committees are being set up in the Northwest hub cities of Detroit and Minneapolis, as well as in San Francisco.

Rank-and-file union members and labor activists have a sense of the high stakes in this fight, and they’re working to build the solidarity that’s needed to win.

LEE SUSTAR is a regular contributor to CounterPunch and the Socialist Worker. He can be reached at: lsustar@ameritech.net