August 22, 2005
Well-Laid Plan Kept Northwest Flying in StrikeBy MICHELINE MAYNARD
DETROIT, Aug. 21 - As Northwest Airlines rode out a full weekend with its mechanics' union on strike, it was enjoying the fruits of an elaborate plan that was meant to not only keep its planes flying, but also to overhaul the way its workers do their jobs.
Northwest's plan to use temporary workers in place of striking members of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association took 18 months to create, company executives said, and it required extensive analysis that began on the tarmac at each of its airports. It also required the cooperation of other unions and the federal government - and even consultation with the White House.
The strategy passed its initial test over a light weekend of flights, but its success or failure will become clearer this week as the airline resumes its normal weekday schedule.
Union members walking picket lines at Northwest's major international hub here on Sunday argued that the airline, which they struck over its demand for $176 million in wage and benefit cuts, would see mechanical problems mount as the week progresses.
"There's just so many little things that will start compiling before it becomes epidemic," said Kevin Opuda, 45, a striking mechanic who has been with the airline for 18 years.
But one labor expert said Northwest's ability to switch to new work routines and keep operating, at least at the outset, sends an important signal to unions that strikes may have lost their power as tools to fight job losses and other cuts.
"This gives all of the opportunities now to the companies and to the replacement workers, and it makes it very, very grim for strikers," said David Gregory, a labor law professor at St. John's University in New York.
As relations with the mechanics' union deteriorated, Northwest developed two goals, executives said. Along with staying in the air, it wanted to cut costs by eliminating 2,000 jobs and embracing the efficient maintenance systems used by JetBlue Airways and other low-fare airlines.
"It's a function not only of having new persons, but starting yesterday, we have a new business model," Northwest's chief executive, Douglas M. Steenland, said Sunday in an interview.
JetBlue, which does not have union workers, and other low-fare airlines have much lower costs than traditional airlines like Northwest.
For one thing, these airlines do not perform extensive aircraft checks, called heavy maintenance, instead farming out the work to outside contractors. Northwest has done the same under its new work plan, Mr. Steenland said, potentially saving millions of dollars a year.
But the plan, created by Andrew C. Roberts, Northwest's executive vice president for operations, went much further than simply outsourcing, drawing from ideas tried at other airlines and incorporating new ones.
"None of the building blocks are unique to Northwest," Mr. Roberts said Sunday, "but the combination is unique to the industry, and the specifics are peculiar to Northwest."
Over the last 18 months, the airline analyzed every job represented by the mechanics' union at every airport and calculated the skills required to fix each of its planes. It then decided how many of those workers it actually needed and what kind of replacements it would require in the event of a strike.
Northwest officials at each airport were given plans at the beginning of the year spelling out how the airline wanted jobs to be performed. Then, three months ago, the airline began hiring replacement workers, who received extensive classroom and hands-on training in Tucson.
There, the replacements, all licensed mechanics, practiced repairs on Northwest planes that the airline had parked in the desert near Tucson when business fell in 2001. The only plane the workers did not learn to fix was the airline's new Airbus A-330, which it flies overseas. Those repairs are being left to Northwest supervisors, Mr. Roberts said.
Northwest also began an effort in Washington to convince federal officials that its plan would work, according to people involved in the discussions.
The airline's management assured the Bush administration that it did not want the president to convene a Presidential Emergency Board, which could order workers back to their jobs in case of a strike, as outlined in the Railway Labor Act. Instead, the airline said, it wanted the chance to carry out its plan.
Last week, White House officials said President Bush did not plan to intervene, since the strike did not threaten to disrupt the nation's transportation system.
Meanwhile, airline executives met numerous times with officials at the Transportation Department and the Federal Aviation Administration, walking them through its training procedures and assuring them that its planes and mechanics would meet all federal standards.
Mr. Roberts said none of Northwest's unions promised up front that they would not stage sympathy strikes, like the one that snarled British Airways' operations in London this month, when its workers briefly walked off the job in support of striking catering crews.
In fact, Northwest had also hired replacement flight attendants in case their union, which is aligned with the mechanics' union, walked out.
But once the strike began, Northwest's unions said they would stay on the job, as they are legally required to do. And some differences between the airline's old and new approaches began to appear.
Before the strike, union rules specified that only members of the mechanics' union, known as AMFA, could deliver planes to airport gates. But on Saturday, the pilot of a Northwest 757 in Detroit, upon discovering his plane was not ready, hopped into a pickup truck and went to the hangar to fetch his plane, rather than keep crew and passengers waiting, airline officials said.
Meanwhile, members of the machinists' union, which usually handles tasks like baggage handling and customer service, took on the task of cleaning Northwest's cabins between flights at its hubs here and in Minneapolis, a job that was previously done by the mechanics' union.
Steve Gordon, president of the machinists' union local here, said he did not enjoy crossing another union's picket line. But Mr. Gordon, whose union used to represent mechanics until AMFA won an organizing drive in 1999, said he preferred to see his workers taking on the mechanics' old tasks, instead of having Northwest hire outside contractors.
"I'm going to make sure my members have a chance to get that work," Mr. Gordon said.
Northwest's situation is somewhat unusual. The job market is awash in licensed airplane mechanics, who were among 130,000 workers in the airline industry to lose their jobs since the September 2001 attacks.
Likewise, the mechanics' union is a rebel organization that is not part of the A.F.L-C.I.O. and has few strong allies in the labor movement. It has angered other unions by convincing their members to join its ranks, in part by promising never to grant concessions to the airlines despite the industry's deep woes.
But Professor Gregory suggested that if one airline can use a walkout as an opportunity to cut jobs and revamp its operations, other airlines, and indeed companies in other industries, could do the same.
In particular, that could be a threat to the United Auto Workers union, whose leaders are meeting this week to discuss General Motors' bid for lower health care costs in the face of mounting losses.
The major carmakers have rarely tried to operate during U.A.W. strikes. The most recent one, at G.M. in 1998, shut down virtually the entire company.
But Professor Gregory noted that Toyota, Honda and other foreign companies do not have unionized workers at their American plants. If replacement workers and new work rules that lower costs could save G.M. and Ford, "that's a no-brainer," Professor Gregory said.
Northwest's contingency plan was an open secret at the airline. AMFA officials called the plan an attempt to bust the union, and argued that the replacements hired by the airline could not match the experience of union members. Northwest says the replacement workers have 5 to 10 years of experience at other major airlines.
As the strike deadline approached, the union focused on job losses, not the job redesign that Northwest has started. And union officials repeatedly contended this weekend that although its planes were flying, Northwest's operations were not running smoothly.
"They're lying," said Dennis Sutton, vice president of AMFA's local union, said here on Sunday. If the airline spent 18 months preparing for the strike, "they did a terrible job," he added.
Mr. Sutton denied that AMFA had been caught off guard by Northwest's plan to keep operating. In fact, he said two incidents here on Saturday, in which a flight bound for Pittsburgh turned back because of smoke in the cockpit and four tires on a plane arriving from Seattle burst on landing, were proof that the airline was being hurt by unskilled mechanics. Northwest, for its part, said the incidents were not out of the ordinary and were unrelated to the strike.
The airline did have some delays over the weekend in getting its planes off the ground. Analysts estimated that about half of its flights were late. The airline would not give specifics on delays but said only about 2 percent of its flights were canceled, a normal industry rate.
N. Walter Goins, a Northwest pilot, waited several hours here for a jet to be repaired before a flight to Los Angeles. But Mr. Goins said the delay was understandable. "Rather than doing a slapdash job, they're taking their time," he said.
Northwest switched to its lighter fall schedule on Saturday, the first day of the strike. The airline was scheduled to operate 1,381 flights on Sunday and 1,473 on Monday, down from about 1,600 on a typical summer day.
Mr. Steenland, the Northwest chief executive, said the company would decide over the next week whether the temporary workers hired by the airline would be offered permanent jobs.
Under federal law, the two sides in the strike must be open to continued negotiations. But no matter whether AMFA returns or the replacements stay on, the new work methods "absolutely" will stay in place, Mr. Steenland said.
Jeremy W. Peters contributed reporting for this article.