An Unfortunate History of Sabotaging Workers to Further Their Own Self-Interests — A Review of the Northwest Airlines Strike of 2005
By Bret Oestreich, National President
It is well known that the “TWU-IAM Association” has failed to deliver on its promises to the American Airlines mechanics and related workers since its inception when U.S. Airways and American Airlines merged. This failure is not an isolated event, but rather a pattern that has unfolded over American labor history. The core problem, demonstrated time and time again, is that these unfocused industrial unions have put their own power and financial interests ahead of the workers’ interests they were obligated to protect. One compelling example of this dark history was the 2005 Northwest Airlines (NWA) labor dispute. Decades later, the International Association of Machinists (IAM), Transport Workers Union (TWU), and International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) continue to lie and twist the facts to rewrite history about the NWA strike of 2005.
In 1998, the NWA mechanics were represented by the IAM, and through negotiations they were able to secure only a 2% pay increase and nothing retroactively from when the contract expired in 1997. The IAM farmed out work with unlimited outsourcing consequences, while giving concessions for decades prior to 1998. NWA employees increasingly expressed their desire to take action to reverse the many years of concessions they endured under the IAM and the tremendous dissatisfaction among the members, which ultimately led to a representation vote.
Frustrated with the leadership of the IAM, the NWA mechanics and related employees voted in 1999 to replace the IAM with the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA). AMFA won that vote and assumed representation of the workgroup under the previously IAM-negotiated collective bargaining agreement (CBA).
In 2001, it was time to renegotiate the tragic labor concessionary contract negotiated by the IAM in 1998. Northwest Airlines, previously conditioned by their decades-long dominance over IAM, was unprepared for the intensity and willpower of the AMFA membership and a tense, protracted battle ensued. There were proposals and counterproposals over an extended period, but the parties remained far apart when negotiations hit a standstill. AMFA therefore requested the NMB to be released from mediation, thus starting the 30-day cool-off period before AMFA was allowed to exercise their right to strike.
On the eve of the anticipated strike in early 2001, President Bush intervened and prohibited it, but warned the parties that if they could not arrive at a contract agreement, he would appoint a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) to mediate the dispute and issue a judgement. The negotiations continued without progress, a PEB was appointed, and a hearing was held in Philadelphia. Both sides had the opportunity to present their case, and AMFA and their attorneys made the most dramatic and compelling argument for the value our class and craft add to the airline industry and the flying public. The PEB was clearly moved by their presentation, and NWA had to act quickly before the PEB ruled against them and Congress could step in to pass legislation that would end the conflict. Finally, after an incredibly hard-fought battle with NWA management, this achievement led AMFA to secure the industry-leading contract they deserved, including:
• A 37% raise over the life of the contract
• Pension rate increase of 113% (from $40 to $85)
• Retroactive pay equal to 3.5% of W-2 earnings
• Outsourcing limits (there were no outsourcing limits in the prior IAM-negotiated contract)
This reinforced the membership’s decision to choose AMFA and gave the IAM its second black eye in the process.
The AMFA-NWA Mechanic and Related CBA was ratified and signed in May 2001, providing double-digit raises and making them among the highest-paid in the industry. This industry-changing contract set a new elevated standard to which AMTs continue to reap the benefits today. Industrial unions opposing AMFA deliberately neglect to mention this monumental achievement of securing more than $10.00/hour increases for AMFA members.
In October 2004, it was once again time for AMFA to head back to the negotiations table with NWA. It was a different economic climate and NWA management, embarrassed by their last negotiation with AMFA, prepared for war and actively sought to break the union. In preparing for battle, NWA secured the support of the U.S. government under President Bush, and, shockingly, other labor unions, who agreed not to support AMFA. This support empowered NWA to propose a perilous final offer to the mechanics and related workers that would be the new standard and lower the bar for the entire industry if they agreed to the following concessions:
• Eliminating 53% of the workforce
• Cutting pay by 25%
• Pension reductions
• Altering medical and dental plans
• Unfavorable work rule changes
• Fewer sick and vacation days
• Eliminate RON staffing
• Eliminate flight day coverage
• Eliminate all job security covenants
• Allow inspectors to perform technician work
• Allow ESEs to perform pushbacks and air-starts
When this unacceptable proposal was delivered, the other industrial unions reinforced orders to their members to not support AMFA if they went on strike, insisting that they cross picket lines and protect scabs. While the odds were heavily stacked against the mechanic and related employees, the demands were simply too severe and damaging for labor to accept. On July 19, 2005, the members voted to strike by 92.4%, as they could not live with the terms upon which NWA was insisting.
The AMFA strike commenced on August 20, 2005, and members were incredibly persistent and unified. NWA made extensive preparations for AMFA’s strike as they hired 1,200 replacement mechanics, and the TWU assisted this mode of operation by holding a job fair at their Kansas City maintenance hangar during the strike to assist the company with this pursuit. Additionally, NWA expanded their global outsourcing of repair and service work with foreign and non-union contractors to ensure their operations continued as normal. In the fall of 2005, soon after the strike began, NWA declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy and announced they were making some of their temporary workers permanent.
Unconscionably, NWA management requested other unions, including the IAM, TWU, and IBT, to cross AMFA’s picket lines to perform the duties of AMFA mechanics and related employees. Furthermore, their Machiavellian tactics to help NWA recruit replacement mechanics only contributed to NWA’s union-busting. While it is understandable that IAM and their large industrial union brethren were humiliated and bitter after being displaced by AMFA, it remains unforgivable that they would intentionally side with management and undermine workers.
It only proves the point that the AFL/CIO and IAM’s selfish need for power and wealth is more important than the needs of workers and the vitality of the labor movement in America. IAM General Vice President Robert Roach responded to AMFA’s request for solidarity from IAM ramp workers and customer service agents by stating, “IAM members will not be duped into standing with AMFA,” while the IAM Local President in Detroit tried to put a spin on the scabbing by claiming it was better for his union to do the scab work than have an outside contractor do it. The Teamsters, like other major unions at NWA, pushed their members to swallow a package of substantial concessions when NWA threatened bankruptcy. Many of the IBT leaders flew on NWA flights, and IAM members helped in performing AMFA’s work during the strike. The unique history of unions at NWA has played a key role in these dynamics.
Ultimately, the strike failed, and NWA was free to slash, burn, and outsource without anything getting in their way; this was only made possible due to the devious role of other labor unions. The anti-union tactics deployed by the IAM led to success in their quest against AMFA and, in return, the IAM lost thousands of mechanic and related jobs at NWA. The IAM sacrificed members for their agenda with complete neglect for what was in the best interest of the members.
Propaganda 101: A lie repeated 1,000 times is still a lie, but if you repeat the lie enough times, some people will start to believe it. To this day, almost 20 years later, the IAM, TWU, and IBT continue to manipulate the facts about the AMFA strike at NWA and try to rewrite history with false narratives. They routinely criticize but fail to share their treacherous involvement in the outcome, acts that are threatening to our craft and to the fundamentals of unionism.
An important lesson learned from this critical time in labor history is that industrial unions lack focus and authenticity of purpose, which makes them inwardly driven on expanding their reach and enriching their leaders at the expense of the people they represent. Craft unions threaten their model because their purpose is more focused, pure, and noble: to create appreciation for, and fully monetize, the value their specific craftspeople contribute to the business. Their job is to build the craft and highlight its importance, so the company values it more. The days of the industrial union are numbered, as people increasingly come to realize that their leaders put the interests of the union ahead of the interests of the professionals they represent. The future belongs to focused craft unions because they are designed to serve their members, not profit from them.
We are asking the mechanics and related workers at American Airlines to move forward with AMFA — the union that is run by the members and puts their interests first. Please contact your floor rep and sign a representation card today.
1. December 27, 2006. The 2005 Northwest Airlines Strike. https://libcom.org/library/the-2005-northwest-airlines-strike
2. November/December 2006. Against the Current. Peter Rachleff. Scabbing NWA Unions Take Wage Cuts: The Case of Northwest Airlines: Workers’ Rights & Wrongs. https://againstthecurrent.org/atc125/p180/
3. November 20, 2006. Labor Notes. Malik Miah and Terry O’Rourke. Viewpoint: Looking Back on the Northwest Strike. https://www.labornotes.org/2006/11/viewpoint-looking-back-northwest-strike
4. November 4, 2005. AviationPros. Good Plan . . . Bad Timing: Northwest vs. AMFA. https://www.aviationpros.com/home/article/10385596/good-plan-bad-timing-northwest-vs-amfa
5. December 15, 2005. Industrial Workers of the World. Peter Rachleff. Northwest Airlines Strike — Where is U.S. Labor Going? https://archive.iww.org/node/1731/
6. January 28, 2006. Star Tribune. Liz Fedor. Airline Forums. Northwest Maintenance. http://www.airlineforums.com/threads/northwest-maintenance.26393/