Northwest has public on board

When O.V. Delle-Femine led his mechanics out on strike against Northwest Airlines earlier this month, he thought he had a pretty good chance of winning public support. After all, the members of his union, the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, were not crazed militants striking for huge wage increases. They were senior mechanics averaging decades of experience. All they wanted was to stop layoffs and wage cuts. Mr Delle-Femine himself - 72 years old and known as "Dell" - is something of a character. He reckoned that he and his small union would appeal as underdogs. And they had a final advantage: the fourth largest airline in the US probably would not want to risk going without the union mechanics for long - too disruptive, or too unsafe. On the Amfa website Mr Delle-Femine noted that Northwest was hiring "scabs" and that they looked to be "inexperienced" or "not properly trained".

But the public support is not materialising. Unions have failed to join Amfa in their strike on a large scale. Not even Northwest pilots were honouring Amfa's picket line last week. And, instead of cancelling flights, Northwest has replaced workers aggressively and largely stuck to its flight schedule - and even talked openly about making permanent job offers to the replacements. Doug Steenland, chief executive, calls his replacement workers a "dream team". In previous eras, the press would have mocked that phrase. But not now.

This is not the first time in US labour history that an aeronautical union has confronted such stiff headwinds. In 1981, America's air traffic controllers fought the Reagan administration. Their story tells us something about the mechanics.

The strikers in 1981 were also a skilled group, employed by the Federal Aviation Administration. They, like the mechanics today, confronted serious problems at work. Conditions in control towers were hazardous; shifts were lengthy and the controllers believed it would be safer if they worked fewer hours. Their union, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organisation, decided to strike - even though public sector strikes were illegal.

The wager was that Patco would become a sort of national emblem of reasonable labour protest. Again, there was the advantage of being important to safety: so many lives depended on the air traffic controllers' work. If Patco could win favour as an exception, it could serve as a wedge to expand worker rights throughout the public sector. The Patco strike too had its "characters": Ed Asner, an actor famous for playing the sympathetic working class fellow, joined the picketing. President Ronald Reagan warned Patco not to strike. But how, Patco friends asked, could Reagan support Solidarity rebels in Poland and not Patco? Patco leaders thought that the country would join it in breaking the Reagan administration. Instead, it was the Reagan administration that broke Patco. The FAA fired 11,400 workers - police led them away. And Washington banned re-employment. The government it would not be blackmailed with the issue of passenger safety. Public sector unions were different from those in the private sector. Unionism was legal, but unions had to follow the law.

To Patco's bitter surprise, the country largely accepted the verdict. What Patco leaders had forgotten was that other things were going on in 1981. The oil price was hitting new highs after years of price controls. Unemployment was moving up - dramatically. Hijackings filled the news, with militants attempting to take over flights from Karachi to Havana. Air travel was problematic enough without the added demand for consumers to take sides in a union battle. After all: if you stand a chance of being taken hostage by a terrorist, you are in no mood to be taken hostage by a trade union. Twelve years passed before the the ban on re-employment was lifted.

Amfa's strike is in trouble for the same sort of reasons, albeit the 2005 version. Airlines are the classic legacy industry. These days they routinely go bankrupt. Companies often find they cannot meet their pension commitments. Given a choice between a company's survival and the survival of its union, workers and consumers will pick the company. What is more, the annual Labor Day holiday next Monday will find US unions in the greatest disarray in postwar history: shortly before the Northwest strike, four big unions boycotted the convention of AFL-CIO, the union federation. The old fear of taking a fellow worker's job is gone. As one replacement mechanic at Northwest told the New York Times: "I didn't have any hesitance."

Amfa was also overlooking the shift in citizens' attitudes towards flying. Even before September 11, 2001, commercial flight was becoming increasingly unpleasant in the US. The increased security requirements are making matters worse. So are additional delays, as well as higher ticket prices. The abominable steerage quality of commercial flight today is one of the themes of the film Red Eye, a thriller opening this week in the US and Australia. Again, US consumers do not have the patience to accept union disruptions.

The striking mechanics are compelling. But the point is that a dramatic industry, air travel, sometimes also dramatises social and economic changes that range far beyond the aeronautical. History often makes its turns mid-air.

© Copyright 2005 Financial Times

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