A year after mechanics went on strike, a trail of contradictions

AMFA strikers.
AMFA strikers Steve Schaff and Tony Camacho still walk the picket line at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

If you've flown any time in the past year, you might have noticed a white van around the departure terminal at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International airport. It's painted with the ominous picture of a grim reaper, as well as bold lettering that reads "Is Northwest safe to fly?"

On this particular day, the van has dropped off a couple of middle-aged men in denim shorts, toting picket signs. They're members of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, and they're hitting the picket line.

When the strike began
Mike Allen, a 19-year mechanic at Northwest, was among the first to hit the picket line at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport when the mechanics went on strike in August 2005.
MPR Photo/Bianca Vazquez Toness

The strike is having no visible effect on the airline, which is posting some of the best operational numbers in the industry. The union says most mechanics don't picket at this point; most of them have found jobs elsewhere. Still, some picketers show up here on a regular basis.

When asked why they're still out on the picket line, the strikers seem caught off guard. There's a long pause.

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"Nobody's ever asked that before," says Tony Camacho, who worked for Northwest for 22 years.

Camacho hasn't found consistent work elsewhere since the strike began. After further deliberation on why he still pickets, he says it's out of a sense of indignation over Northwest's demands.

"They basically wanted us to vote on a contract to eliminate better than 50 percent of our jobs. You couldn't do it," Camacho says. "And they wanted a big chunk of a pay cut. That's why were out here."

The other striker on duty, Steve Schaff, is also a 22-year veteran of Northwest. Schaff says he's found a job as a mechanic at a railroad company. He recently resumed picketing after a hiatus of a few months.

AMFA guys in front of the van.
Strikers pose in front of the van that transports them to and from the picket line.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

"It's just a good cause, and I'm gonna see it through. See it through to the end, however that may be," Schaff says.

In the judgment of many analysts, the strike effectively ended long ago. The walkout didn't disable the airline. Northwest used replacement workers, managers, and outside vendors to maintain planes as soon as the union walked out. AMFA warned the replacement workers' unfamiliarity with the aircraft could lead to planes dropping out of the sky. That didn't happen.

In addition, there was little evidence that people avoided Northwest so they wouldn't have to cross the picket line. And yet, supporters driving by the picketers still honk and wave and offer a thumbs up. One guy even shouts he hopes the mechanics run Northwest out of business.

But those same well-wishers go on to drop off passengers at the Northwest entrance.

That's a contradiction Steve Schaff takes in stride.

"I don't think there's much interest. As long as they get to where they want to go, and there's no catastrophic accidents, I don't think people pay much attention. So, life goes on," Schaff says with a laugh.

Ted and Mike.
Ted Ludwig and Mike Klemm, leaders of the Twin Cities local.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

Before the strike, Northwest argued it needed dramatic concessions from the mechanics and other unions to achieve a more competitive cost structure and avoid bankruptcy. The company filed for Chapter 11 a month later, saying it could not withstand the soaring price of fuel in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

But Steve Schaff, Tony Camacho, and many other AMFA members are convinced that Northwest was out to bust the union. And they picket to show their support for labor and the union cause.

And yet, Schaff gently criticizes AMFA's leaders, who never let the membership vote on a contract before calling the strike.

"I would've liked to have voted on something before we went on strike, just so I could say that if I put myself in this situation -- I either voted for it or I didn't," Schaff says. "I was disappointed I didn't get the opportunity."

Union leaders defend their decision, saying it was absurd to think mechanics would willingly ratify a contract that would boot half of them out the door.

Big truck.
AMFA uses trucks like this to try to embarrass Northwest.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

Even though it's on strike, AMFA remains the legally certified union representing any mechanics that work at Northwest. And it will remain the official union unless it's voted out.

Ted Ludwig, the president of the Twin Cities local, says striking mechanics want to return to work. He acknowledges the airline might not be eager to rehire an angry workforce. But he says the mechanics are committed to doing a good job if they return to work.

"We're mechanics. That's our profession, that's what we do, and we're very good at it. And we were forced off that job. And now we're strikers, now we're picketers," says Ludwig. "We're good union guys. We're no longer mechanics. When we have something to do with the airline, we're very professional. And I think that Northwest Airlines can separate the two."

Ludwig goes on to argue that for many mechanics, Northwest isn't the real foe. This might come as a surprising statement, after months of the union's searing rhetoric about the company.

But across from Ludwig's perch in the union office, there's a posterboard that reveals who the other adversaries are. The poster says "SCABS" across the center, and lists replacement workers' names.

It's just a good cause, and I'm gonna see it through. See it through to the end, however that may be.

"Our guys who are still out here, they're blaming the scabs. They're not blaming Northwest," Ludwig says. "Northwest did what they had to do, we expected that from them. We actually kind of respect that. They really fought us hard. Today they're holding the upper hand. But the only reason they're holding the upper hand is because of these scabs."

But an AMFA mechanic who crossed the picket line sees it differently.

"I think if AMFA had been more diplomatic about it, they might've got more support. They did it by themselves, and therein lies their problem why their strike was ineffective," he says.

This replacement mechanic asked MPR not to reveal his identity, because he fears retaliation from strikers. He says some replacement workers' cars have been trashed and some people's houses have been picketed by angry strikers. The union couldn't confirm those reports.

The replacement mechanic says he and the others who crossed the picket line feel badly about doing so. But he thinks the union made plenty of its own mistakes -- like not getting other unions to back it. And he thinks the union was naive about how many jobs it could hold onto, when much of the industry was downsizing.

"That's the other thing that AMFA maybe should've checked up on. Every other airline is doing what Northwest is doing," he says. Some mechanics like Frank Victorson chose to leave on their own terms rather than take the blow from Northwest. Victorson retired from Northwest in October 2005, a few months into the strike. He had worked there 23 years.

Frank.
Frank Victorson retired from Northwest last October, and is now starting his own hypnotherapy practice.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

Victorson got a job as a building engineer after retiring from Northwest. And he's also starting his own business in the basement of his home in Bloomington.

"We're sitting in an office I've just remodeled. I have a few things I have to do before I get my shingle up. I have to get my cell phone hooked up and I have to get business cards," he says.

Victorson is pursuing a lifelong interest in psychology, which he studied in college. He's now launching a business to treat clients with hypnosis.

"This is going to be the Bloomington hypnosis center," he says with a smile.

Victorson is still bitter about Northwest giving mechanics what he thinks was a lousy deal. And he says the mechanics who crossed the picket line should have sought other work instead of abandoning the union.

"There's other options. There's life after Northwest. For myself, I'm a lot more than just my job. And you just have to start redefining yourself," he says.

Victorson says he looks forward to helping others with his practice of hypnotherapy. He says one of the key concepts behind the practice is that forgiveness leads to emotional healing.

When asked if he'd counsel the angry striking mechanics to try forgiveness, he makes a few halting attempts at an answer, and finally just says he'll have to get back to me on that one.