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(en) US, WORKERS SOLIDARITY, Workers of the Skies Unite! The 2005 Northwest Airlines Strike by Kdog - Twin Cities IWW GMB

Date Fri, 16 Jun 2006 18:45:11 +0300

by Kdog NorthStar Anarchist Collective Twin Cities IWW GMB (personal capacity)
In August 2005 the mechanics and cleaners at Northwest Airlines
(NWA), the world’s fourth largest passenger airline went out on
strike. The workers were rejecting the company’s final offer of
massive concessions, including 53% job cuts, 26% wage reductions
and sharp cuts to their benefits and pensions.

This battle is in response to a new round of attacks by the old large
industrial corporations, such as the Airlines and Automakers against
their heavily unionized and relatively better-off workers.
Out-sourcing (reducing unionization), and sharp scaling back of pay,
benefits, and pensions are the general thrust, part of their drive to
make US workers more “competitive” with the rest of the
world. The enormous power and prestige these brand name
corporations have means these attacks set the tone and establish the
trend for all class relations in the US. As the necessary norm for
doing business in the global market.

Today’s unions for the most part accept the logic of the capitalist
market and are completely out of practice of any kind of militant
struggle. This poses the question how are workers going to be able
to resist these attacks, and how are we as revolutionary anarchists
and class partisans going to be able to best aid our sisters and
brothers given our extremely limited size, resources, and influence?
Let’s look at this strike and try and draw out some lessons so far.
AMFA The mechanics, cleaners and custodians at NWA are represented by
AMFA, the Airline Mechanics Fraternal Association, a sort of
do-it-yourself craft union that for years barely existed at the margins
of the industry. Up thru the nineties, the mechanics at Northwest
were represented along with the baggage handlers and ticket agents
by the International Association of Machinists (IAM). But sick of
continuous concessionary contracts negotiated by the IAM, and
confident in the leverage created by their skill-set the mechanics
along with the cleaners and custodians struck out on their own
becoming the first major work group from one of the big airlines to
affiliate with AMFA.

Generally we should support industrial, not craft unionism. There
were also some conservative reasons why the mechanics at NWA
went to AMFA. But it should not be a surprise to us that in the
absence of any clear class pole - like the IWW of old for instance -
workers will try and find something, anything, that gives them some
independence from the business as usual of the mainstream unions.
In the same way that the P-9 meatpackers of Austin, MN in the
‘80’s grasped onto Ray Rogers’ “Corporate
Campaign”, the mechanics at NWA grabbed onto AMFA.

AMFA its self is a bit of a trip. Headquartered not in Washington,
New York, or Detroit but in a small town in New Hampshire. Run
out of a law firm, and headed up by a crusty old airline mechanic
called O.V. Delle-Femine, AMFA is not your typical U.S. union.
While AMFA regrettably relies on lawyers for its negotiations, it has
no real bureaucracy to speak of. It’s small number of officers are
either still working or fresh from the shop floor.

Rather then being a layered hierarchy of useless and interfering
bureaucrats, AMFA had if anything a problem going the other way.
A kind of “Tyranny of Structurelessness”. There was little
internal organization to the strike, meaning every problem, question,
and opportunity was thrust to the new local president. There was
never any effective democratic procedure for running the strike, like
weekly mass meetings and/or an elected strike council of delegates
to discuss and implement strategy. Folks were very much winging it.

But I never saw any bureaucratic interference or undemocratic
methods used to silence or police the strikers. In fact it was amazing
how little “cushion” separated the negotiators from the active
core of the strike. One example: a few weeks into the strike, the
AMFA negotiators were discussing bringing back a new, worse
NWA offer to the membership to vote on. When some of the more
active strikers herd about this they were livid and began personally
calling the AMFA national leadership and negotiators on their cell
phones and demanding that this not happen. At one point a pissed
off steward started physically threatening the negotiating team, while
others used less violent but still firm reasoning. The negotiators were
forced to pull the idea. It is unthinkable to think of local rank & file
activists and officers being able to effect national negotiations like
that in the Teamsters, UAW, or IAM for instance.
AFL-CIO Treachery
AMFA is not affiliated to the AFL-CIO. Apparently still smarting
from the workers exodus from the IAM, the federation did all it
could to undermine AMFA during the strike. The AFL actually sent
a letter to every metro labor council in the country ordering the
unions to refuse any support to AMFA. This had a very chilling
effect on solidarity efforts. In concrete terms it meant that even
raising simple motions for a donation at your local union’s
meeting would be opposed by most union officials. It meant that no
wider mobilizations of official labor solidarity would be possible. It
created a huge obstacle to reaching the constituency that would be
most naturally supportive of AMFA’s struggle.

Of course this exile from the House of Labor, also gave a certain
openness to the struggle that would not have existed otherwise.
Many rank and file AMFA workers were not only acutely aware of
the “corporate” enemy, but also had a pretty sophisticated
understanding of the problems with the labor “movement”.
With no AFL-CIO support there was not the usual bureaucratic
control of the grassroots, the legalism, and electoralism. We found
thru the IWW that we were able to easily (surprisingly easily) enter
into pretty serious strategic discussions with Local 33’s officers
and activist core, make proposals and plan some significant action.
Direct Action
NWA is headquartered in Minneapolis-St. Paul, and it’s largest
hub is at the Twin Cities international airport. AMFA’s largest
base, Local 33, is in the Twin Cities. From the beginning of the
strike, Twin Cities anarchists have been in solidarity. During the first
days of the strike, members of Northstar Anarchist Collective did
three banner drops over one of the main interstates going out to the
airport. Most of our activity has been as members of the newly
formed Twin Cities IWW.

Our perspective, which we continually tried to hit home, at the
solidarity committee meetings, at the unofficial action group
meetings, and at rallies and the picket line was simple: “What
will it take to win this strike?”

It seemed to us that the strike had to impede NWA’s ability to
operate, it had to start hurting the company. It had to spread to the
others sectors of workers at the airports, especially the Flight
Attendants (The PFAA, an AMFA-like independent union that split
from the Teamsters) and Baggage Handlers and Ticket Agents
(IAM). It had to become an issue of concern and attention for
working people generally. It had to create a crisis for the larger
capitalist class beyond the NWA board and large stockholders.

Within the Solidarity Committee, an informal action group (made up
of mechanics, revolutionary unionists, and a few other radical
supporters), and among individuals there was no real disagreement
with this view. But there were serious questions and concerns about
whether and how this was possible. Our ideas about direct action
meshed with some of the strikers though, and we were able to pull
off some important actions.

Three significant direct actions were organized jointly by
revolutionary unionists and an informal mechanics action group.
The first action served as a kind of test. More then 50 workers
(mostly AMFA members) picketed a hotel where scabs were being
put up and moved on to hotel property feeling out the reaction of the
scabs, security and police. To follow that up we announced to the
media and the union’s membership that we were going to picket
the homes of NWA CEO and Board members. Our group chartered
three school buses but shortly before moving out from the launching
area/Strike HQ announced to each full bus of 80 plus strikers and
supporters that the buses were instead going to three of the hotels
where NWA was putting up scabs, in order to blockade the buses
NWA chartered for their PM shift. This idea was greeted
enthusiastically and we were off. The ruse worked. Vance security
and local police were waiting for us at CEO Chuck Steenland’s
home. At each hotel serious confrontations developed with the scab
buses, delaying their movement for a couple hours.

At one hotel location, a scab bus mysteriously developed a flat tire,
making a perfect backdrop for an impromptu press conference
featuring Local 33 officers and activist flight attendants and baggage
handlers who were supporting AMFA. Shortly before police
announced they would make mass arrests we retreated as planned.

The shift had been delayed and NWA was confronted with a security
hole it hadn’t planned for. Direct Action was on the agenda as
the way forward, and dozens of workers had played a part in
planning and carrying out the most audacious labor action in the
Twin Cities in years. The press would have to adjust from its
comfortable story line of the union’s defeat. And in an end
around the AFL-CIO’s stonewall, trade unionists and their
supporters would see the strike’s energy and action on TV and
the front page… Except this was also the day after Hurricane
Katrina hit and the reality of that situation would wipe nearly
everything else out of public discussion and consciousness.

A couple weeks later, following a rally at the Strike Headquarters the
same group of us organized and motivated for a car caravan to drive
over to the main gate at the airport where the scabs were brought in.
Over 200 cars ended up participating - totally jamming up the service
road that the scab buses would use. A couple of our cars ended up
having “engine trouble” causing the police to make two
arrests and tow out two vehicles. Again a shift was delayed, NWA
was caught unprepared tactically, and spirits soared.

(In separate anonymous actions, there were reports of metal spike
caltrops being spread on that same service road to the airport utilized
for transporting scabs, and of a couple scabs being beat up at the
hotels they were being put up in by the Corporation.)

There was however no easy consensus on the next step forward.
AMFA had been overconfident in their ability to shut down the
airline simply by withdrawing their labor. NWA had seen that
coming though, and many believe actually wanted the confrontation.
While almost no AMFA folks crossed in the first couple months, the
company kept the planes flying by hiring and training scabs and
using management around the clock. The FAA and the local
“liberal” media conspired to suppress the gross safety
violations and a couple of near misses that resulted.

We were not able to find a way to create momentum towards more
action, involving broader groups of airline workers and others. There
was lots of discussions of what it would take to actually shut down
the airport for a day - the kind of action that would create a huge
amount of attention for the strike and pressure on the other unions
to support it - but no plan emerged that seemed realistic.

As the strike dragged on - now entering it’s 6th month - more
AMFA workers, including many of the strike’s active core that
we had worked with, started peeling away to go find work elsewhere,
move out of state, or just plain move on. Despite the dismal scene,
AMFA workers in December voted to reject yet another, worse final
offer from NWA. There will be no face-saving way out here. Heads
held high, the NWA mechanics and cleaners have had to absorb a
major blow. The company now must absorb bankruptcy, the other
unions the shame of having stood by and watched. We, who
supported and fought alongside the striking workers, need to absorb
the lessons.
Some Lessons for Anarchists
1. There clearly is an offensive by the bosses aimed at what have
been the best working-class jobs. (See Delphi, GM, Ford, Delta,
Northwest . . .) The aim is to force US workers to compete with
workers internationally on a much lower playing field.

2. These attacks will generate resistance. Since the mainstream
unions are not oriented toward militant struggle, the workers, will by
necessity have to seek additional and/or other vehicles to organize

3. The traditional anarchist and syndicalist methods of direct action
and horizontal organization, as well as agitation for expanded Mass
Strikes or even General Strikes will be immediately useful to the
workers in this situation. Proposals for these tactics may find a much
more receptive audience than we are used to. Many workers will be
quite skillful at organizing and implementing these tactics. We will
have as much to learn as to teach.

4. These type of actions have the potential to escalate and will be
met by repression. We have a responsibility to help prepare for the
consequences, and plan for the next steps. Individual direct actions
can be reduced to “stunts”, if not part of a broader strategy.
Police brutality, arrests, and corporate lawsuits against the union can
have a chilling effect if folks aren’t prepared.

5. Despite the potential radicalization among these sectors, it is not
automatic that it will go wholly in a libertarian direction. Indeed there
is a wide opening for authoritarian and even fascist politics among
this sector (made up largely of the formerly best paid and mostly
white and male workers). Anti-immigration, economic protectionism
and general U.S. nationalism will have to be countered in creative
and practical ways.

6. There is a need for an organized pole of consistent revolutionary
anarchist / syndicalist ideas and action that can relate to and help
develop this resistance. I think comrades in the WSA, NEFAC,
NWAF, exFRAC, ARA and individual anarchist militants need to
discuss whether the IWW or some other common front is needed to
serve as such a pole.

From the forthcoming issue of WORKERS SOLIDARITY, publication of the
anarchosyndicalist Workers Solidarity Alliance (WSA) 339 Lafayette
Street #202, NY NY 10012. mailto:wsany@hotmail.com
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