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Northwest strikers want unemployment benefits

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Several DFL politicians and striking members of Northwest Airlines rallied at the Minnesota Capitol on February 20, 2006.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

     Northwest Airlines mechanics have been on strike since August 19. They voted overwhelmingly last summer to walk off the job rather than accept concessions that would have eliminated about half of their jobs and significantly cut the salaries of those left on the payroll. Northwest moved on by outsourcing most of those jobs, and filling the rest with replacement workers and strikers who crossed the picket line.

     The Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association remains officially on strike, and union local leader Ted Ludwig says the members who are still out of work need help from the state.

Ted Ludwig.
The Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association remains officially on strike, and union local leader Ted Ludwig says the members who are still out of work need help from the state.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

"Northwest has declared there are no more jobs for these workers who spent the better part of their adult life building the airline into a great Minnesota company," he said. "Now is the time for the Legislature to do the right thing and grant these people unemployment benefits and dislocated worker services."

     It's been a tough six months for the striking mechanics and their families. Meredith Gulsvig, the teenage daughter of a union member, described how the strike has taken a financial and emotional toll.

"My sister cried just about every day, and there's a ton of tension in our house. We were yelling more and arguing over the stupidest things. We still come home from school almost every day to an empty house. My dad goes to school at night to try to learn a new job and start a business during the day. At most I see him an hour a day or just for dinner and that's if I'm lucky," she said.

     Despite such emotional pleas, mechanics and their families still can't access state unemployment insurance or job retraining. A judge ruled last September that the mechanics are ineligible for the programs as long as they remain voluntarily on strike. 

My sister cried just about every day, and there's a ton of tension in our house. We were yelling more and arguing over the stupidest things.

A Northwest spokesman issued a statement saying  "the most expeditious way for these furloughed workers to receive unemployment and job retraining benefits is to conclude their strike against Northwest Airlines."         But the mechanics are getting a lot of sympathy from several key DFL lawmakers, who plan to introduce legislation on their behalf next month. 

Rep. Karen Clark, DFL-Minneapolis, is working on a bill that would clear the way for those state benefits.

"There just is no reason that these folks should be excluded. I was actually the author of the original bill back in the '90s, and we intended for workers who were out of a job to be able to get retraining. And these folks certainly qualify for that, but there are some technicalities in there that have kept them, the interpretation anyway has been that they're not eligible. So, we can change that. The employment law is a little more specific and will be a harder fight," she said.  

     Clark is the lead DFLer on the House Jobs and Economic Opportunity and Policy Finance Committee, where the bill would be tested. The committee chairman,  Rep.  Bob Gunther, R-Fairmont, sees the issue more like Northwest Airlines does than his colleague Karen Clark.   "All they have to do is end their strike," Gunther said. "Right now they can't qualify for benefits because they're striking. If we gave benefits to people who were striking, wouldn't we be giving unfair treatment in a strike to the other side?"

     Gunther says the legislation will get a hearing, but he doubts it can pass his committee. The bill is expected to get a more favorable reception in the DFL-controlled Senate.