Tuesday July 7, 2020
| Last update: Tuesday at 9:57 AM

Battles Rage at Northwest Airlines

Pilots Win First Round
by Mike Hazard |
October 1, 1998
Read more articles in

Minneapolis, MN - A major victory for labor occurred when pilots at Northwest Airlines returned to work after winning significant pay and job security increases during an 18-day strike. Northwest Airlines ceased all flights on August 28, when 6,000 pilots shut down the carrier.

The strike came after 22 months of unsuccessful negotiations by all 6 unions representing close to 50,000 NWA workers. The Air Line Pilots' Association (ALPA), International Association of Machinists (IAM), and Teamsters represent the vast majority of employees at Northwest. An executive council representing all unions at the airline was formed early in the negotiating process to coordinate activities of all the unions. Not one pilot crossed the picket line.

Prior to the strike, NWA management refused to meet worker demands for pay increases and job security. Huge pay concessions by employees in the early 1990s saved the airline from bankruptcy after a leveraged buyout by corporate financiers Al Checci and Gary Wilson. In the years following the 1993 worker wage givebacks, NWA executives took huge bonus payments and cashed in multi-million dollar stock options as the airline turned in its highest profits in history. Workers believed that as their old contracts expired, they too would be rewarded for their years of sacrifices.

Instead, nearly two years went by in fruitless negotiations, as management proposed "cost-saving" measures that threatened the jobs of all union workers with outsourcing, and refused to take seriously union demands for compensation increases. A key issue was Northwest's intention to use new regional jets to replace DC-9s flown by Northwest crews. The regional jets are operated by Northwest Airlink, one of two regional carriers financed by Northwest, but not operated by Northwest personnel.

Pilots believed more Northwest routes would be served by the underpaid Airlink crews unless the company agreed to union proposals for maintaining Northwest crews and equipment on routes. Teamster flight attendants are also directly affected by this issue. The settlement reached by the pilots guarantees that routes currently flown by Northwest crews will not be shifted to Airlink, and that new routes served by Airlink will be linked to expanding Northwest-crewed routes.

Northwest management openly called for presidential intervention to bail them out of the strike. President Clinton is empowered by the National Railway Labor Act, under which airlines operate, to order pilots back to work for a 60-day "cooling off" period. The unions opposed government meddling, fearing a settlement favorable to management would be imposed. Political pressure by the union kept Clinton from ordering the pilots back to work.

The successful outcome of the pilots strike may help the remaining unions in their negotiations, although a strike by the Machinists or Teamsters remains a distinct possibility. Prior to the pilots strike, the Machinists leadership recommended a contract that the membership overwhelmingly rejected.

Teamster solidarity was high throughout the strike. Local 2000, the national local representing 10,000 flight attendants, has organized a member-oriented contract campaign along the lines of the UPS strike organizing. Contract Action Teams, or CATs, are active at each city where workers live, and coordinate national days of action. This higher level of activity by flight attendants is the result of actions by their newly elected, pro-reform leadership. Northwest management tried to minimize the public impact of the flight attendants by banning them from having rallies on airport grounds.

The determination of the pilots to stand up to an aggressive and hostile management has resulted in a real victory. The outcome has implications for the future of the airline industry, which was contemplating a rapid erosion of wages and benefits in the name of competition. Instead, the pressure will be for better pay for the employees who make air travel safe and professional.