The Case of Northwest Airlines: Workers' Rights & Wrongs

— Peter Rachleff

FOUR YEARS AGO, WHEN asked by an academic journal to write about whether the strike was still a viable weapon in labor’s “arsenal,” my title was blunt: “Is the Strike Dead?”(1) As is my style, I introduced some historical material and offered an analysis of the anti-labor bias of the past 25 years, during which the number of “large” strikes (involving 1,000 or more workers) had declined from more than 400 per year to less than 30.(2)

I then offered some hope, some possibility, that workers would revitalize the strike or would find other tactics of comparable effectiveness. Having now seen what’s happened to mechanics, cleaners, custodians and flight attendants at Northwest Airlines in the past year, I must offer a revised analysis. Four years ago I suggested that workers had the right to strike in contemporary U.S. society only when their exercise of it would not have an economic impact. How disturbingly right I was and how dire our situation is.

David Harvey gives a profound insight in his A Brief History of Economic Neoliberalism that contemporary elites might embrace neoliberalism, but are not practicing it as it is constructed on a blackboard (or, today, I suppose, in a powerpoint presentation).(3) They may celebrate free market economics, free trade, reduced government, deregulation, and privatization; but at the end of the day, they seek first and foremost to solidify their power, their profits and their hegemony.

When the application of free-market principles yields the desired results, they are consistent neoliberals, but when they need the muscle of the state to protect and further their interests, either globally or domestically, they become supporters of government intervention and invokers of government authority. Under some circumstances they can even become practitioners of Keynesianism, advocates of deficit spending, as long as the bill is not put on their tab.

In 1980 the U.S. Congress passed the Staggers Act, which “deregulated” interstate transportation, following on the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act. Both were signed into law by President Carter, a Democrat. A year later, major collective bargaining agreements on the nation’s freight railroads began to run out, and a number of unions filed “Section 6” notices, calling for the negotiation of new contracts.

Thanks to the assistance, oversight, mediation and arbitration services provided by the federal government under the proviso of the Railway Labor Act, the clock kept ticking and the spring of 1991 dawned with “negotiations” still ongoing. That April, 235,000 workers on 11 major freight railroads struck, only to be ordered back to work 17 hours later by a “unanimous consent motion” from the U.S. Senate, brought to its floor by Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy, at the behest of President George H.W. Bush.

Bush-the-first invoked the Railway Labor Act and appointed a Presidential Emergency Board, which wrote new contracts for more than a dozen trades. Congress then enacted these contracts into law, making them binding. As a railroad engineer and union activist here in the Twin Cities remarked at the time: “Congress must have forgotten to deregulate labor when they passed that Staggers Act.”(4)

Labor Attacked at NWA

The Northwest Airlines labor conflict of 2005-2006 reveals just how significant government power has been in the eradication of a meaningful right to strike and, thereby, in undermining unions and attacking the workers they represent.

Corporate management has been greedy, irresponsible, self-interested, despicable and all those things that workers call them — and they have been ruthless, effective, and hard-hitting in implementing their strategies. But they could never have been as successful as they have been without a big assist from Uncle Sam.”(5)

In August 2005, some 4,400 mechanics, custodians, and cleaners, members of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA), struck Northwest Airlines. Over the summer they had rejected a series of contract proposals that had called for the elimination of more than half their jobs, the slashing of their wages and benefits by more than 25%, and the radical rewriting of their job descriptions and work rules.

Over the course of 2005 NWA management had been preparing for this strike, setting up outsourcing arrangements with repair facilities from Central America to South Asia to the southern U.S., signing contracts with custodial and cleaning firms, and hiring and training mechanics who agreed to serve as strikebreakers.

At the eleventh hour, President George W. Bush chose not to intervene, not to use his powers under the Railway Labor Act, but to let the strike unfold.  As the mechanics, custodians, and cleaners hit the bricks, NWA management implemented its plan, and its planes kept flying with almost no discernible disruption.

Other government agencies swooped into action or inaction, as called for by the airlines’ agenda. The Metropolitan Airports Commission, appointed by Minnesota’s governor, ruled that their own early 1970s regulation banning strikebreakers from MAC-controlled property did not apply, since the union could not prove that the scab mechanics, cleaners and custodians were “professional” strikebreakers who had provided their services in similar situations in the past.

The MAC and their police limited the strikers’ right to picket to ineffectual numbers in innocuous locations.  Local police limited picketing outside worksites to a merely symbolic presence, and, after some picket line confrontations, banned pickets and picket/protest signs from sites visible from the highway.

An administrative law judge employed by the Minnesota Department of Labor ruled that the strikers were ineligible for unemployment benefits, arguing that, despite precedents, management’s demands for a 50% job reduction and a 25% wage and benefit cut did not constitute an “effective lockout.”  (He would be overruled by a federal appellate judge almost a year later, by which time financial pressures had driven some strikers to return to work, while others had lost houses, cars and even marriages.)

Then there was the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA), which had its own internal labor issues bubbling. It dragged its feet in responding to mechanics’ complaints about the lack of appropriate oversight of the strikebreakers’ work and investigating a smattering of incidents, while it cracked down on whistleblowers in its own ranks and assured the public that it was “safe” to fly NWA.

Picking Off the Unions

So the AMFA strike dragged on.  It had its significant high points, such as the occasional blocking of scabs’ buses and worksite gates, substantial rallies, an effective food shelf, a spirited solidarity committee and, above all, the impressive maturation of a core group of activists from the striking union and the ranks of the other NWA unions which had chosen not to honor their picket lines. But on the whole, hamstrung by the strategic actions and inactions of the government, the strike was unable to dent the armor — or the pocketbook — of Northwest Airlines.

Meanwhile, NWA management took on one union at a time. One month into the AMFA strike they declared bankruptcy, and used the federal bankruptcy courts as leverage with these other unions. The bankruptcy laws allowed NWA to choose its court, and it picked the New York City district, long renowned for being sympathetic to corporate management in bankruptcy proceedings.

If these unions would not agree to the substantial concessions being demanded, management threatened, they would ask the bankruptcy judge to abrogate the collective bargaining agreement and impose management’s terms. These unions, having chosen not to support AMFA, now had the tragic unfolding of that union’s strike to watch as an object lesson.

Moreover, NWA unleashed a lobbying juggernaut in Washington, seeking (and ultimately gaining) a law allowing them to stretch out their overdue pension payments. Management claimed that the only other option was to walk away from $4 billion of their pension obligations, since they had been systematically underfunding those pensions for years and had already leveraged or hawked most of their assets.

Fearful of losing their pensions altogether, many of the unions, while in the midst of bargaining over the demanded concessions, sent not only their lobbyists but even rank-and-file members to Washington, D.C., to join NWA’s corporate lobbyists in working Congress and the Senate.  At a bargaining, organizational and ideological level, the unfolding of the bankruptcy process became a major weapon in management’s hands, and one union after another gave in.

The Bankruptcy Weapon

The bankruptcy process placed additional pressure on other workers, too. Like other major “legacy” carriers (large employers with outstanding benefit commitments to veteran workers and retirees), NWA had encouraged/spurred/supported the creation of “regional” carriers, Mesaba and Pinnacle, which flew smaller planes and paid significantly lower wages and benefits. While these regional carriers were totally dependent on the major carriers for all their business, they were termed “competitors,” and, like “double-breasted” construction companies, the compensation packages at these smaller companies were used as a hammer on the workers employed by NWA.

Mesaba soon followed NWA into bankruptcy court in the fall of 2005, demanding that the judge force their workers’ unions to renegotiate concessions or face the imposition of new, draconian terms. Mesaba also found a judge in Minnesota as generous as the judge NWA had found in New York City, as he allowed them to exclude the earnings and assets of Mesaba’s holding company, MAIR Holdings, which happened to be owned by Carl Pohlad, the richest man in Minnesota and the owner of the Minnesota Twins.

None of the profits that Pohlad had accumulated over the years from Mesaba’s relationship with NWA were to be considered in the bankruptcy process. The only “golden goose” (as Karl Marx might have said) to be plunked on the table was the workers, and their wages and benefits.

The Flight Attendants’ Struggle

Meanwhile, even as AMFA appeared tossed aside (though they remained a thorn in the side of NWA, rejecting yet another tentative agreement in late December 2005) and key unions like the pilots (ALPA) and the groundworkers and customer service staff (IAM) caved in, the flight attendants held out, as rank-and-file members twice rejected tentative agreements. Their story was quite complex and requires some explanation.

Conflict between flight attendants and NWA dates all the way back to the 1986 merger of NWA and Republic Airlines.  Work rules, seniority protections and job assignments were resolved in a contentious process that left flight attendants with skepticism about the quality of the representation they were receiving from the Teamsters Union, while women and queer union members felt especially disenfranchised by the gender and sexuality politics practiced by the Teamsters.

Seven years later the Teamsters, like other major unions at NWA, pushed their members to swallow a package of substantial concessions when NWA threatened bankruptcy. A militant network of flight attendants, organized into phone-tree and email networks called “contract action teams” (CAT), built an increasingly cohesive web of information and mobilization within the ranks. A few years later, on this base, Teamsters for a Democratic Union activists gained control of IBT Local 2000, which represented all of NWA flight attendants.

However, when James Hoffa, Jr., replaced Ron Carey as national president of the Teamsters, he placed the Local 2000 leadership under increasing pressure, insisting that his red-baiting, gay-bashing “personal representative” be present at all executive board meetings. This amounted to a virtual trusteeship which undermined the ability of the new leadership to build a program and a rank-and-file organization which could stand up to NWA management.

Many of the activist flight attendants watched with interest when mechanics, custodians and cleaners, frustrated with the quality of representation that they had received from the IAM (such as being asked to vote three times on the same concessionary package in 1993), decertified the IAM and reformed themselves as AMFA. These flight attendants urged the decertification of the Teamsters and reformation as a new, independent union, the Professional Flight Attendants Association (PFAA).

In 2002 they got their wish, and the PFAA became the bargaining agent for NWA’s 11,000 or so flight attendants. NWA management wasn’t happy and wasted little time showing their distaste for the new union.

Back in 1993, when the Teamsters, IAM and ALPA gave NWA major concessions, they received seats on the board of directors. The situation was immediately squirrelly, as the union’s representatives on the board quickly announced that their “fiduciary responsibilities” as board members required them to withhold “confidential” information from the very members of their unions!

Then, in 2002, after PFAA was certified as the legal bargaining agent for the flight attendants, NWA announced that the Teamsters would continue to hold the seat on the board and an invitation to sit at the table would not be extended to the PFAA. Management claimed that the 1993 deal had been with the Teamsters’ Union, not with their employees! NWA also announced that their dues checkoff agreement had been with the Teamsters and that, if the PFAA wanted the dues checkoff, they would have to make financial concessions.

The PFAA refused and, for the duration of their presence on the property, they relied on the voluntary collection and contribution of dues. This became a sore point within the union when it became apparent that some of the former Teamster officials were choosing not to pay dues to the PFAA! By the way, no appeals to the National Labor Relations Board, the National Mediation Board, the Federal Aviation Agency or any government agency resulted in pressure on NWA management to deal respectfully with PFAA.

Democracy and Disagreement

Frankly, the flight attendants did not find union perfection within the PFAA. Like AMFA, which was in many ways their model, the PFAA practiced internal democracy and transparency that could/should be a model for the rest of the labor movement. All negotiations with management, for instance, were open to any rank-and-file members to witness. All union officers continued to work under the terms of the contracts they negotiated. The internal communications networks were revitalized.

But there were also disagreements among PFAA activists and between them and former Teamster proponents, and there was much disarray about how to deal with the worsening labor relations climate at the airline. Never good, after 9/11 it grew steadily worse, as revenues dropped and costs rose, and corporate management made no bones about its intent to squeeze labor costs as a way to maintain profitability.

When AMFA struck in August 2005, the PFAA leadership sent out a ballot to members, asking them if they wanted to honor AMFA’s picket lines. While many flight attendants had been vocal supporters of the strikers and PFAA leaders had spoken at strike rallies, the leadership provided no education, no argument, no rationale, no strategy, along with this ballot. In a close vote, it lost.

The collective decision to continue to work despite the AMFA strike hurt the strike (as the flight attendants would have been harder to replace and their absence would have crippled NWA’s schedule), hurt the PFAA activists who then had to make difficult “personal” choices about honoring or crossing picket lines (in the face of management threats, illegal threats, that they would be fired), and hurt the PFAA’s bargaining position with the company (who now felt they could push the union around at will).

The PFAA leadership mounted little response to the media barrage that NWA would be dissolved if the workers did not give the concessions demanded, that the pensions would be lost if Congress did not act, that there was no way for workers to resist — the line that dominated not just the local press, radio, and television, but also CNN and Fox News where it was viewed over and over by flight attendants on layovers.

Resistance Under Pressure

Over the next year, however, even as two key unions, ALPA and IAM, gave NWA the concessionary agreements the airline sought, as the striking mechanics, custodians and cleaners were replaced by a combination of strikebreakers and outsourcing arrangements, and as the PFAA leadership struggled to present a strategy that could inspire its members, the flight attendants remained a source of resistance to the corporate juggernaut.

Email networks spread messages of hope and resistance to a concessions package totaling $190 million per year, an estimated 40% cut in total compensation for each flight attendant, and a radical rewriting of work rules and job assignments which would disrupt most of their lives. Although many flight attendants had been intimidated by NWA’s crushing of the mechanics’ strike, others felt that, given the terms they were being asked to swallow, these jobs would not be worth keeping.  When the PFAA leadership brought a tentative agreement back to the membership in June, it was solidly voted down.

In the midst of the complex negotiations, bankruptcy hearings, and rumors of corporate plans to replace large numbers of unionized attendants with Asian-based attendants, first in Asia itself, then in trans-Pacific flights, and then in the continental United States, some attendants — many of them former Teamster officers, some with TDU credentials, some with pro-Hoffa track records — announced that they were seeking the decertification of the PFAA and its replacement by the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), the country’s largest flight attendants’ union and part of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), and therefore the AFL-CIO.

The new dissident group counted on rank-and-file flight attendants’ assessment that AMFA’s independent status had been a factor in the labor movement’s failure to support their strike. When the National Mediation Board, under the rules of the National Railway Labor Act, conducted a representation election in July, the AFA won. They were now the official union for NWA’s dwindling cohort of flight attendants.

In a matter of weeks, under the leadership of Mollie Reiley, who had led IBT Local 2000 before the TDU upsurge, and Danny Campbell, who had led that upsurge and succeeded Reiley as president of the union in the late 1990s, now appointed interim president and vice-president of AFA-NWA by AFA national president Patricia Friend, the new union announced a tentative agreement with NWA.

It included some minor changes in how the $190 million in givebacks would be structured and some minor changes in contract language. In August, even as NWA management insisted that a rejection vote would lead to their imposition of their own contract terms, the membership voted this tentative agreement down.

Planning CHAOS

The very day the contract rejection vote was announced, NWA management made good on the threat, imposing the cuts and new language. AFA responded with a strike notice, as is required under the Railway Labor Act, adding that they intended to use their CHAOS (“Create Havoc Around Our System”) strategy. Rather than shut the airline down, particular flights would be targeted, crews would fail to show up, refuse to work or walk off the plane, disrupting the NWA schedule strategically without leaving large numbers of flight attendants vulnerable to replacement.

CHAOS has taken on legendary status in airline union discourse, although it has actually only been implemented once, on Alaska Airlines in the early 1990s. AFA leaders assigned a CHAOS director for the campaign, a coordinator for each major city, and began to organize committees and conduct training. Rank-and-file flight attendants responded with enthusiasm, and lime green CHAOS t-shirts appeared on informational picket lines at airports around the country.

But the AFA delayed implementing CHAOS. NWA returned to the bankruptcy court and asked Judge Gropper to enjoin AFA from CHAOS or any strike action. They argued that, because the airline was in bankruptcy, the union no longer had a right to strike. The union’s attorneys responded that, under the Railway Labor Act, since the company had resorted to “self help” by imposing its contract terms, the union was now free to resort to “self help” itself.

Management, labor, legal and media eyes watched closely as there was no precedent, there had never been a case that tested the right to strike during bankruptcy under the auspices of the Railway Labor Act. Judge Gropper ruled that bankruptcy made no difference, and that the employer’s use of “self help” freed the union to do so as well.

NWA immediately appealed Gropper’s decision, filing with Judge Victor Merrero of the U.S. District Court in New York. U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez and the U.S. Department of Justice filed an amicus brief in support of the company’s claims, as did lawyers representing every major airline in the country.

Inventing the Law

On September 14, 2006, Merrero issued first a preliminary injunction and then a temporary injunction against job action by AFA and its flight attendant members. He suggested that management and the union return to the bargaining table.  Citing the Railway Labor Act’s concern with the economic impact of disruptive strikes, Merrero argued that such action would damage Northwest Airlines, its stockholders and customers, and the overall economy. In other words, precisely because a strike might be effective, he was banning it.

Merrero relied on a creative, unprecedented interpretation of the Railway Labor Act. In its language, only the President of the United States has the authority to prohibit a strike because of its potential economic consequences.  In intervening, the President would then declare a cooling off period and appoint a Presidential Emergency Board, who would have the responsibility to craft a settlement which Congress would then have to enact into law.

That’s how the RLA works, and over the course of the last ninety years, presidents have invoked it many times. But George W. Bush, with his political capital shriveled by the Iraq War and other adventures, chose not to intervene. His Justice Department’s amicus brief flew under the media’s radar. And Judge Merrero was arrogating powers to himself (and the judicial branch) that were properly the purview of the President (and the executive branch).

In Merrero’s court order he admitted that he was not using power that was clearly his, but claimed that he was acting in accordance with “the intent” of the authors of the 1926 Railway Labor Act. The union’s attorneys announced that they would appeal his finding. This is an outrageous exercise of state power to deny a union and its members their rights. But AFA, its parent CWA, and its umbrella the AFL-CIO have been quite circumspect in their response.

Labor Needs Civil Rights!

In a recent book which deserves more attention, labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein argues that one of the reasons for the decline of the U.S. labor movement has been its inability to craft a “rights discourse” like that articulated by the civil rights and women’s movements in the 1960s and 1970s.

Labor issues have been constructed by employers, media, politicians and ideologues as pocketbook issues, while the motivation of protagonists have been constructed as material self-interest.(6) Recent AFL-CIO campaigns, such as “Voice at Work,” have been, at best, tepid. But here, in the case of the NWA flight attendants, we have government denial of a basic labor right in contravention of our existing laws and judicial precedents, let alone a popular sense of justice and morality.

This conflict could be the poster child of a revived labor movement. One need not be a visionary to imagine a civil disobedience movement initiated by flight attendants, resisting directly, peacefully, non-violently, Judge Merrero’s order in the name of the defense of working people’s basic right to strike. Such a movement might galvanize the passions, energies, and bodies of working women and men — flight attendants and other airline workers; auto workers who are rapidly losing their pensions, their health care benefits and their jobs; and other workers, inside and outside the labor movement, who feel that their rights are being taken away, who are looking for some inspiration, some strategy, some movement that can stand up to the anti-labor neoliberal agenda.

Sadly, there is little indication that such a movement is on the horizon. Even as NWA’s economic health returns with two consecutive quarters of in-the-black performance, even as the price of oil drops, even as Mesaba workers present a united front in the midst of their bankruptcy crisis, and even as other airline workers question the necessity for the concessions they gave only months ago, the union leadership on the firing line waits — and waits.

Meanwhile, NWA flight attendants are working more inhumane schedules and earning less money for it, day in and day out, while waiting for the AFA’s lawyers to present their appeal to the federal appellate court.  AFA national president Pat Friend has stepped in and taken the leadership in negotiations with the company, but there has been no discernible or announced progress.

Email lists, websites and local CHAOS committees have knitted the flight attendants together, but they have been given nothing to do — but wait. Some activists have turned their attention to internal AFA elections, when offices filled by interim appointments will be up for popular selection. How much longer can rank-and-file attendants’ hope and resistance weather this waiting game?

This labor conflict is not only demonstrating the power of capital in the early 21st century, and corporate management’s discovery of bankruptcy as a new anti-labor tool, but it is also revealing the role of the government in enforcing this agenda and the inefficacy of the labor establishment in formulating a response to it.

Notes

  1. Peter Rachleff, “Is the Strike Dead?” New Labor Forum, 12:2 (Summer 2003).
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  2. “Work Stoppages Involving 1,000 Workers or More, 1947-2001,” http://www.bls.gov/news.release/wkstp.101.htm.
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  3. David Harvey, A Brief History of Economic Neoliberalism (London and New York: Verso, 2005).
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  4. Peter Rachleff, “Derailed – But Not Defeated,” Z Magazine, July-August 1991.
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  5. Peter Rachleff, “Where is Labor Going? The Northwest Airlines Strike,” Against the Current 119 (November/December 2005).
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  6. Nelson Lichtenstein, State of the Union:: A Century of American Labor (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002).
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ATC 125, November-December 2006