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Northwest Airlines mechanics vote to end strike

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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 mechanics' union says 72 percent of the members who cast ballots voted to accept the settlement.  

Now the strikers have to make a choice. 

They can resign from Northwest and get ten weeks' pay. Or they can get five weeks' pay and go on a recall  list for jobs as they open up at Northwest.

"There are people who know there is no possible way they can work next to a scab. They know that. And I anticipate those people will move on."

University of Minnesota professor John Budd says there's little question Northwest won the battle. 

"Northwest was able to fly through the strike with very little  disruption and was able to achieve everything it was looking for,'' says Budd. "Probably more easily than it thought it would be able to. It's pretty clear the airline won and the union lost."

But union leader Jeff Mathews says the strike did bloody Northwest. 

"It's had a huge toll on the company also," says Mathews. "They spent large sums of money preparing for the strike. They had to downsize when the strike happened and then they went bankrupt. It's not to say we won the strike. But it sure wouldn't be accurate to say we were defeated either."

The union went on strike in August of last year to protest Northwest's demand for a 25 percent cut in wages, and other givebacks.

Mathews says some mechanics will return to Northwest because they love working on planes. But he says many will never return because they can't stomach working alongside people who crossed picket lines.

"It will be  a very  difficult decision and very difficult thing for a lot of people to work with the scabs," says Mathews. "They have to decide before they go back there that they can do it.  There are people who know there is no possible way they can work next to a scab. They know that. And I anticipate those people will move on."

About 4,000 mechanics and cleaners walked off their jobs in August of last year. Northwest responded by sending their work to outside vendors or hiring replacement workers. 

About 1,600 strikers subsequently resigned or retired from Northwest -- or crossed picket lines to return to work.

Paul Volker is one of the mechanics who walked and stayed on strike. In the past year, he's helped develop one business, an online service that helps divorced couples with children communicate and coordinate their lives. Now, he's working on starting up another business.

Volker says he's glad to see some closure in the battle between Northwest and its mechanics.

"I was looking forward to it being accepted,'' he says. "It's nice to see there's not going to be another Hormel, where it is open-ended. Hopefully, those who have chosen to move on will do well. And anyone with the opportunity to go back can."

In 1985, 1,400 Hormel workers in Austin, Minn., took on the meat-packing giant -- without the backing of their union's national headquarters. Many financially exhausted workers eventually crossed picket lines to join replacements hired by Hormel. But some union members never accepted defeat.

Northwest now has about 900 mechanics on its payroll and even fewer cleaners and custodians. With cuts imposed by Northwest, the top pay for a mechanic at the airline has fallen to about $55,000 a year.  

Northwest has now reached agreements on pay and benefit cuts with all of its labor groups except the flight attendants. They are still negotiating, but working under terms the airline imposed.