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This Hardball Union Is Striking Out

By Robert Berner Since founding an airline mechanics union behind the ongoing Northwest Airlines strike four decades ago, labor leader O.V. Delle-Femine has built its membership on a core principle: Make no wage concessions to management. For years that position worked, allowing the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Assn. to raid existing unions at such airlines as Southwest Airlines (LUV) and United Airlines (UALAQ) to swell its ranks.

Now the Northwest (NWAC) walkout seems likely to spell the death knell for hard-line labor positions in the troubled airline industry. Many of the mechanics who quit the much larger International Association of Machinists in favor of AMFA's tough approach probably won't get their jobs back. Their likely defeat will reverberate among other unionized airline workers, too, dampening any idea that Delle-Femine's go-it-alone tactics are worth emulating.

Instead, airline workers at most major carriers will continue to face painful wage and benefit adjustments as their employers struggle to cope in a fiercely competitive, loss-plagued industry. The Northwest strike "will cause the collapse of AMFA," predicts Ray Abernathy, president of Abernathy Associates, a Washington (D.C.) consulting firm that advises unions on strategy.

CRAFT POWER. More broadly, AMFA's uphill struggle illustrates just how weakened organized labor has become across the economy. True, airline unions operate under special federal laws that don't apply to auto workers or most other labor groups. But the ease with which Northwest has replaced 4,300 skilled mechanics shows how vulnerable virtually every kind of employee has become.

AFMA has tried to re-create worker clout based on an outdated notion of craft power more suited to the early 20th century than to today's globalized, deregulated economy. "Workers have to organize in bigger unions across whole sectors" or they will fail, says Bruce Raynor, president of UNITE/HERE, the needle trades and hotel workers union.

Delle-Femine's strategy seems poised to collapse because AFMA has run smack into the reality of an industry under huge economic pressures. A well-prepared and novel contingency plan by Northwest management also undermined the mechanics union's leverage. While Delle-Femine calls the prediction of AFMA's demise "far from the truth," the union's chances of winning the strike become more unlikely with each passing day. AFMA's leadership ordered the strike on Aug. 20 over the airline's demand that the union accept $176 million in wage concessions, including 2,000 job cuts.

LEGACY OF SUCCESS. But Northwest's ability to use replacement workers has enabled it to keep flying with few delays or cancellations. "Northwest has proved it can run the airline without them," says John Fossum, an industrial-relations professor at the University of Minnesota St. Paul, Northwest's hometown.

A former airline mechanic himself, Delle-Femine formed his union in the early 1960s on the notion of how indispensable such mechanics were. He believed the workers could be better represented in their own union rather than in larger unions covering multiple industries. So he raided existing airline unions for mechanics, including most machinists' union members from Northwest in 1998.

Until now, he has largely succeeded with his no-concession stance. In 2001, prior to 9/11, he negotiated the highest-paid contract in the industry for those workers. But the sharp and unabated downturn in the airlines that occurred after the terrorist attacks undermined the union's bargaining strength.

BANKRUPT SKIES. With United already filing for bankruptcy protection and other majors -- including Northwest -- considering the possibility, other airline unions have been far more conciliatory. That includes Northwest's pilots union, which recently accepted pay cuts.

Labor experts say if the mechanics' strike fails, it will undermine the confidence in Delle-Femine's leadership among the union's 12,000 members at six other airlines. For now, though, the Northwest mechanics who are part of the union will be paying the price.

Berner is a correspondent for BusinessWeek in Chicago

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