The AMFA Strike: What Must Be Done
By Brian Schwartz
Forty-four hundred mechanics, cleaners, and custodians organized by the Aircraft Mechanics’ Fraternal Association (AMFA) have been on strike against Northwest Airlines since August 19. A 25 percent paycut, the loss of 2,000 jobs, outsourcing, and a gutting of work rules made the membership realize that Northwest wasn’t trying to merely escape bankruptcy; they were out to destroy the union and reorganize as a modern low-budget carrier that can turn a profit in the deregulated airline industry. Northwest management has made token sacrifices but has recovered its losses by reshuffling job descriptions and hanging onto corporate bonuses.
AMFA union members are an isolated vanguard standing their ground in Corporate America’s 25-year battle to neutralize or destroy U.S. trade unions that impede corporations from competing for market share and profits. Capitalists are no longer opening up vast markets; they are competing for markets that have been clogged with competitors since the close of the post–World War II boom. Capitalist competition is now focused on productivity and driving down wages to rock bottom, rather than expansion and meaningful investment in risk ventures. Corporate America has a longer memory than does the working class; they realize if they attempt to smash the American trade-union movement all at once, they will rouse the working class back on its feet to fight back—and it could be a battle they might just lose. It’s no exaggeration when Northwest Mechanics proudly say that they are standing on the picket line for all of America’s workers.
The pilots, flight attendants, and International Association of Machinists (IAM) union members are crossing Northwest Mechanics’ picket lines. A small class-conscious minority of trade unionists has not crossed the picket lines, but not enough have stayed away up to now to tip the balance in favor of the Mechanics. Scabs and renegade members of AMFA are crossing the picket lines with impunity. Northwest has been able to carry on clumsy maintenance operations under the enabling eye of the FAA. AMFA members are hoping that the scabs’ inability to keep Northwest flying safely will become apparent to the public. According to a striker I called on AMFA Local 33’s hotline, Northwest plans to use AMFA mechanics who cross the lines to shore up the scab workforce’s mechanical skills.
AMFA National Director O. V. Delle-Femine has hired Ray Roger’s Corporate Campaign to take the fight to the corporate board rooms and publicly shame Northwest Airlines back to the negotiating table. Delle-Femine has made these promises:
• Organize striking members and their families into an army that will move the battle to the doorstep of NWA’s board of directors and their political and financial allies.
• Tell travelers why NWA’s policies are a danger to the flying public.
• Press European unions to join the strike. Unions in Europe have more latitude than their U.S. counterparts to start sympathy strikes.
Corporate Campaign has scored only one victory in its dubious history: The United Steel Workers Local 5668 won a 20-month long strike against Ravenswood Aluminum Corporation back in 1992. Corporate Campaign focused attention on Mark Rich, who had financial connections to Ravenswood and was wanted for tax evasion in the United States. Mark Rich replaced the Operations Officer with his handpicked successor, settling with Local 5668. The scabs were dismissed and the union workers reinstated with a contract.
Delle-Femine hopes that this success can be repeated with Northwest Airlines. Chances are that Corporate Campaign will lose, as it did during the 1985 Hormel Strike. Hormel’s battle against Local P-9 wasn’t an ordinary, routine contract dispute. U.S. meatpacking companies wanted to completely gut wages and work rules that had been in place since the 1930s. By smashing P-9, the U.S. meatpacking industry gained back the ground they had lost during the militant trade-union days of the ’30s, moving into a new era of increased productivity and superprofits.
Deregulation of the airlines was a pet project of Democratic President Jimmy Carter. Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy was a principal author of the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, which passed over the objection of the major carriers, airline unions, and safety advocates. The Civil Aeronautics Board was dissolved and the airline industry was cast into the anarchy of the free market.
When the capitalists’ very survival is at stake they will ruthlessly attack labor, and there is no amount of embarrassment or public-relations campaigning that can make them back down. American corporations will yield to labor only if labor shuts them down completely and the corporation cannot turn a wheel. Corporate Campaign will probably fail for Northwest mechanics and cleaners because the major airlines have to reduce their labor costs down to non-union wage scales to compete profitably in the new low-cost flying era. Behind closed doors the Democrats and Republicans have thrown their support behind the airlines, just like they did with the meat-packing industry back in the 1980s.
The Judicial and Executive branches of the U.S. government will aid the airlines with injunctions limiting pickets, voiding contracts, and cop-assisted scab-herding.
Labor professors and trade-union groupies are hollering “solidarity” with Northwest Mechanics—a hollow cry when they remain firmly in the pocket of the Democratic Party, which brought about this major assault on working people’s wages and their unions. The bipartisan labor-hating government has legislated tough laws, with long jail terms and bankrupting fines for unions and their members who take the kind of action needed to wage an effective strike and beat back the anti-labor corporations and their government. That means organizing sympathy strikes and mobilizing support for embattled strikers to help stop scabs from taking their jobs, breaking their strikes and their unions.
Labor’s alliance with the Democratic Party has crippled the U.S. labor movement. At this point many if not most AMFA members have made alternative plans and are looking for new jobs. Some Northwest Mechanics have applied for jobs at the railroads and other industries in Minnesota. If the official leaders of the American labor movement had done their duty and taken a determined stand against strikebreaking—not only of the aircraft-mechanics’ union, but whatever is left of the union movement in this industry—they could have turned the tables on the bosses and their government. This would undoubtedly have become the beginning of a new counter-offensive like the one that began in 1934 in Minneapolis, where I live and work, and similar strike victories in two other American cities that year.