Why Big Labor hasn't aided striking mechanics

[Editor's note: The original headline was less accurate than it should have been in referring to the strikers.]

As Northwest mechanics begin Week 2 of a strike, the stakes for the union are rising fast. The airline is talking about hiring its replacement workers permanently, and it insists that it's running "adequately" without the strikers. No new talks are scheduled.

If Northwest rides out the strike and succeeds in breaking the union, it could be a watershed in the history of the American labor movement, many analysts say - a key event in a long string of setbacks that have weakened the role of organized workers as a political and social force in the country.

Others, particularly representatives of major unions themselves, say that is nothing more than hyperbole.

They believe this mechanics' strike is unique to Northwest and to the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA), which represents the 4,400 striking workers. Indeed, AMFA is something of a pariah in the labor movement, because it built its strength by luring workers from more established unions, such as the International Association of Machinists. Leaders inside the AFL-CIO, in fact, often don't refer to AMFA as a union at all but as, in the words of one, an "organization started by a bunch of lawyers that has touted elitism instead of solidarity."

Some labor experts go so far as to infer that Northwest isn't alone in wanting to break AMFA, speculating that Big Labor, which has not come to AMFA's aid, would not shed too many tears if it fell.

"This is payback time for AMFA. That's the way the labor movement is looking at it," says Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. "Raiding is a sin, and [they believe] AMFA raided and won [by] saying it would never accept concessions. It'll be much easier for other unions to tell members that they must accept concessions if AMFA was killed for not doing it."

The major unions dispute that view, insisting that they support the mechanics wholeheartedly. It's just the AMFA organization they have trouble with.

"There's always support for the workers, but as far as AMFA as an organization there is probably little or no support," says Ellie Larson of the Association of Flight Attendants in Washington. "It's a renegade union run by businessmen for their own profit. And this is exactly why an independent union that's not associated with the larger labor movement won't work."

If pilots and flight attendants honored the AMFA picket lines, Northwest would never be able to break the mechanics union, Ms. Larson says. "It's no coincidence that our message always centers around solidarity."

From the perspective of the AMFA picket line, that kind of talk makes no sense. "It's really quite a quandary for them," says Steve MacFarlane, AMFA's assistant national director. "I don't know how you hold those two ideas in your head: 'We believe in organized labor, but these AMFA guys, they're not welcome.' "

Mr. MacFarlane suggests that the larger union movement is being petty at the expense of the striking mechanics, a move that could impact other workers in labor disputes across the country. Professor Chaison concurs, especially now that Northwest is talking about hiring the replacement workers permanently. "What Northwest is doing here is two things: They're telling AMFA that 'we're going to do without you, this will essentially break you, and we can get away with it,' " he says. "The other thing they're doing is serving a warning to their other unions ... so the other unions won't even press their case."

As a result AMFA believes it's in other unions' best interest to support it. It also disputes the AFL-CIO's contention that it "raided" other unions' members. IAM mechanics at Northwest and United had come to AMFA, not the other way around, says MacFarlane. The mechanics were dissatisfied with their current representation, he contends, but more important, they wanted their own craft-based union, like the pilots and the flight attendants have.

"All of these people are welcome in the AFL-CIO. Why aren't we?" asks MacFarlane. "It's because AMFA is an independent union, and independent unions are not welcome in the union family. They've set up this system whereby they want to have a monopoly on all of the workers in this country."

But one union member's monopoly is another's mass solidarity movement. From the AFL-CIO's perspective, it's AMFA that has been playing outside the rules.

"They come in when workers are most disgruntled and most disturbed, when unions have had to give back in the face of the declining revenues and bankruptcies in the industry," says Larson. "They use others' misfortune as their platform."

Even as this union battle simmers beneath the AMFA strike, labor experts like Chaison say a larger labor war could be lost. The strike comes at a time of "tremendous weakness" in the labor movement, he says. If Northwest management succeeds, the larger movement could be tarnished in two crucial ways, Chaison adds. It would send a signal to US workers "that unions result in strikes and lost jobs" at the same time it would "embolden American business."

"Northwest could give seminars on how to break a union," he says. "If the situation is right, and you're willing to invest the time and money, you don't have to worry about strikes because you can get what you want."

But the labor movement insists that's not the case. "You cannot make broad conclusions. This is an exceptional situation that involves a particular organization," says Esmeralda Aguilar of the AFL-CIO. "I don't think this will have wider implications because of the nature of this particular organization."

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