Aug 29, 2005
There's a battle going on right now, pitting mechanics and cleaners against a giant airline, Northwest. On the company's side, a decision has been made to either break the union involved, AMFA, or to force the workers to give up so much that their union might as well have been broken. Not only did Northwest demand a 25% actual pay cut and an end to pensions – it also insisted on eliminating nearly every cleaner and half of all the mechanics.
On the workers' side, there was determination to resist the attack, as well as confidence that the company cannot long do without their skills – at least as far as the mechanics are concerned.
The AMFA workers have gained a certain amount of support from other workers. It's obvious that other workers at Northwest – even while continuing to work – are giving a hand today in all the many ways that workers can. And some workers from other airlines have joined the Northwest picket lines.
At the same time, leaders of other unions seem to have gone out of their way to stab this strike in the back. Announcing that they would not respect the picket lines, the head of an IAM local in Minnesota wrote to AMFA, saying: "I hope you and your membership are prepared to practice what you preach. Stand alone." And an international IBEW official prohibited the Detroit IBEW local union hall from being used for a fund raiser for the strikers. AMFA supposedly committed a crime by attracting Northwest workers away from the IAM in 1998.
Whoever was right and whoever was wrong in 1998, that's not the issue today. Workers are being attacked by a big company, and that attack, if successful, will spread to other workers beyond AMFA at Northwest – and beyond Northwest, to workers not just at other airlines but throughout the country.
In some ways, it seems like a replay of the 1981 strike led by PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers' Organization).
At that time, other unions formally gave the PATCO controllers some money and statements of support – even going so far as to organize a big demonstration in Washington, D.C. on Labor Day, with the PATCO strikers leading the march. But leaders of the other unions did not call on their members to respect the picket lines; they certainly did not call on their members to join the fight, although many workers, themselves under attack, were calling for a more generalized fight. Leaders of the other unions proposed to leave the PATCO controllers to make the fight alone. And the leaders of PATCO said that the controllers' skills were enough to let them win alone. They were wrong.
The PATCO strike was a big turning point for labor in this country. It showed that a craft union of highly skilled workers not only could lose a big strike, but that it could be totally broken and most of the workers replaced permanently if the strike was not joined by other workers.
It's useful to remember what happened in the PATCO strike – not because the same outcome is inevitable, but because there's no point to make the same mistakes all over again.
It's not enough to have skills – as the mechanics do. Their fight needs to be part of a larger workers' mobilization. That's what can make big companies like Northwest, United and General Motors – and all the rest – back off. And the Northwest mechanics and cleaners could be the people to start a mobilization going. They've already made the first step – showing they, at least, are ready to fight. At a time when other workers want to fight, but few unions call on them to do it, the Northwest strikers could convince other workers to join them in a broader struggle. There are other Northwest workers, other airline workers, other workers in the airports. There are neighbors, relatives, friends. But the Northwest strikers have to make the effort to get others to join them.
So what if treasonous leaders of other unions won't join the fight? It's what the workers do that will make the difference. And the AMFA mechanics and cleaners have every right to insist that others join their fight.