Saturday, August 27, 2005

NWA: Murder was the case that they gave me

Due to discussion in the comments section of my post, Daily FAIR, it behooves me to clarify a position on the NWA mechanics' union strike and why it's more tragic than past labor negotiations. In situations such as these, most people don't know all the facts and history behind events because they are too numerous and often too involved. I will attempt to lay out my own opinion, which favors the union but does not absolve them of some faults, and may not have all the facts and figures correct, but the overall themes are basic truths.

First of all, a commenter, sam, raised the issue of wages. Sam contends that the mechanics have nothing to gripe about since they earn $70,000 a year and work 48 weeks. The airline is asking them to take a 26 percent pay cut, which would still leave them with $52,000 a year. The problem here, however, is that the mechanics earning $70,000 per year have worked 20 to 25 years with Northwest Airlines - probably more than a quarter of their lives - and that type of experience does not come cheap. Furthermore, a family of four or five that has come to rely on an income of $70,000 per year for more than 20 years, is obviously going to have to make drastic changes in their lifestyle. Most would probably have to sell their house, move to another town, sell their car, etc. On paper, it's easy to say, "Quit bitching when after cuts, you're still making $20,000 a year more than the national average," but that argument doesn't hold water in the face of real situations involving real people.

Xtrachromosomeconservative asked the question, "Is it really wise to strike right now?" what with the imminently disastrous financial problems plaguing not only Northwest, but the rest of the legacy airline carriers as well. Union members will tell that they either strike now or never. Northwest doesn't only want to cut wages among their mechanics and cleaners. They want to cut jobs. A significant number of jobs. And they want those jobs to be replaced by workers in other airports where the labor costs are drastically cheaper. It's the outsourcing (my apologies for the Lou Dobbs-style buzzword) of airline labor, and it spells doom for the way of life of many American workers. If this Northwest experiment succeeds, you can bet that other airlines are sure to follow. Why strike now? Because most of the mechanics and cleaners knew more than a year ago that Northwest was planning on eliminating their jobs strike or no strike. So let me ask a question: If you were faced with the elimination of your job now, or with quietly accepting a pay cut only to have your job eliminated later, wouldn't you try to make a public display about it?

You may ask: So what? So what if some of Northwest's jobs go overseas if it helps the long term stability of the airline and allows it to compete with low-cost carriers? The problem is two-fold. First, you're losing decades of experience in repairing and maintaining airplanes, the most complicated mass transit device in existence. I don't know about you, but I would much rather have a guy with 20 years experience fixing planes working on the fuel line for my flight to D.C. than someone with perhaps questionable training and experience in Beijing. I'm not being a protectionist, I'm being a safety-concerned consumer. Second, as MPR pointed out, Northwest has made the Twin Cities very reliant on them, not only for air travel, but economically. The loss of wages and jobs from them will have an increasingly negative impact on our local economy.

The other issue here within Northwest is much larger than simply the mechanics' union. Northwest wants concessions similar to these from all its unions, including pilots and flight attendants. It has a hole of more than $1 billion that it wants to fill on the backs of its most important workers. The mechanics have brought up the old rube about management taking cuts in salary as well, but NWA has no comment on that. And why not? Why shouldn't management take pay cuts - for the good of the company - if they expect everyone else in the company to take pay cuts? It's a pathetic and sad duplicitousness, and it's inhumane and disrespectful management.

Ilya has mentioned the possibility of government intervention in order to keep Northwest afloat, and not surprisingly, Xtra disagreed. I have to follow Xtra on this one. Northwest has already been bailed out by government before, and as long as the airline believes that an entity will always be around to salvage it - no matter how screwed up things get - it's corporate environment will never change.

Which calls to the forefront probably one of the most important arguments in this deadlock: the fact that the mechanics' union made concessions to Northwest in past labor negotiations in order to save their jobs and to save the company. The union accepted pay cuts in the 1990s because Northwest management told them they had to or the company would go bust. For Northwest to continue to go back to its employees in order to cure the ills that management - and to be fair, a number of other factors including, but not limited to, sky-rocketing fuel costs, competition from budget airlines, and that economical catchall 9/11 - is nothing short of disgusting.

See also: Daily Strike, Daily Meandering, Daily CHAOS, The Pie-Eyed Pickle of the Week, and Daily Retread.


xtrachromosomeconservative said...

Management taking pay cuts, well of course they should. They never do, though.

xtrachromosomeconservative said...

Maybe you can inform me of otherwise, but with regards to offshoring of mechanics, it appears that you have erected a strawman only to knock it down yourself. With Northwest, and for that matter all of the legacy carriers, they have outsourced a lot of their routes to smaller regional carriers. For instance, a flight from Washington D.C.-Minneapolis- Mason City, Iowa. The D.C. - Minneapolis leg would be serviced by NW' mechanics while the Minneapolis - Mason City leg would traditionally be serviced by Northwest and thus by its unionized mechanics. However, Northwest has entered a code sharing arrangement so that leg would be serviced by Mesaba aviation and its mechanics. The question is not whether you are paying somebody in beijing vs. a unionized NW mechanic in Minneapolis but rather whether you are paying a non-union mechanic in brainerd or duluth vs. a unionized NW mechanic.

xtrachromosomeconservative said...

I also don't know to what extent Northwest's demise would have an effect on the local economy. Not to say it wouldn't. However, other carriers would pick up those routes which NW is no longer able to service. Ostensibly they need mechanics and other workers as well, union or non. In all likelihood these routes would be absorbed by Low Cost Carriers, providing cheaper travel to local customers. It is not like the twin cities are a one horse town. It has a diverse corporate presence.

PiedPiper said...

The Twin Cities is primarily a one-horse town one it comes to airlines. Yes, the low-cost carriers could fill flights, but what of the economic impact of a few thousand people losing their jobs?

Also, Mesaba mechanics are unionized and attempted to join with the NWA mechanics in their strike, but were ordered not to in court.

xtrachromosomeconservative said...

Yes Andy, Northwest is the primary air travel provider in the twin cities by a sweeping margin. But is that the result of competitive practices or leveraging the local and state government for subsidized competitive advantages. I don't see Northwest losing capacity as an issue here, the fundamental issue will be the net loss of jobs.