The Northwest Strike: Acid Test for Labor

Against the Current, No. 119, November/December 2005

Malik Miah

The following speech was given by Malik Miah, a United Airlines Airline representative and editor of Way Points of Local 9 of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA), at a San Francisco Airport rally on Labor Day, September 5, organized for striking mechanics, custodians and cleaners at Northwest Airlines.

Three hundred attended the rally at the old International Terminal and joined the picket line afterwards in front of the NWA gates.  Participants included rank-and-file workers from many local unions, and a leadership delegation from Local 10 of the ILWA (International Longshore and Warehouse Union, the first national union to back the strike.


Today’s New York Times runs a headline that says, “Amid difficulties, leaders of labor see opportunity.”

But where are these so-called leaders of labor?  Where is John Sweeny, the president of the AFL-CIO who is quoted as saying, “A record 53% of nonunion workers say they’d join a union tomorrow if given the chance-that’s the highest percentage in 25 years.  It is our job to reach them.”

Yet less than 13% of Americans workers are in unions, fewer than 10% in the private sector.  The reason few are joining unions is because the bosses are confident that the House of Labor is all talk and little action.

We reject the attacks of AFL-CIO President John Sweeney who said last week, “We have to be honest and tell you we don’t think the strategy of this so-called union is the right strategy.”  Instead of saying he will organize his federation affiliates to join the picket line, he smears our union to justify the betrayal of the machinists’ and pilots’ leaderships at Northwest.

Whose side are Sweeney and his cohorts on?  There are only two choices—the striking workers and the Northwest union-busters.  The leaders of the AFL-CIO have failed the decisive, acid test of supporting our striking members at Northwest Airlines.

The failure of the unions at Northwest to honor AMFA’s picket lines and do struck/ scab work shows why the typical working person does not see labor as relevant.

It is not a surprise that the current federation is in crisis and independent unions exist like AMFA.  A new, viable labor federation is clearly needed to respond to the bosses’ attacks.  The strike by AMFA, in the context of a labor leadership in crisis, points the way forward for labor.

We are meeting the decisive test of Solidarity and unity for all. We will win with the strategy of a solid strike and picket.  The chickens will come home to roost on all those so-called union officials at Northwest, and the “House of Labor,” who fail the test.

Origins of Labor Day

It is useful to step back and look at the history of Labor Day—its origins.

Labor Day is our holiday.  The blood, sweat and hard work of those who maintain and keep all businesses running is what makes the United States what it is today.  The managers and bosses would not have jobs without us.

Labor Day was born in 1894 after years of militant resistance in the rail transportation industry.  President Cleveland declared Labor Day as a holiday to appease labor’s demands.

Samuel Gompers, then head of the American Federation of Labor, said in 1898 that Labor Day is “the day for which the toilers in past centuries looked forward, when their rights and their wrongs would be discussed …that the workers of our day may not only lay down their tools of labor for a holiday, but upon which they may touch shoulders in marching phalanx and feel the stronger for it.”

Working people won collective bargaining rights because of militant unionism.  The eight-hour day, and the other social wages such as Medicare and Social Security that we used to take for granted, are a direct result of trade union action.

AMFA’s Strategy

AMFA does have a winning strategy.  It is based on 100% solidarity and unity of our members—mechanics, cleaners and custodians.  So far, only a couple strikers out of 4500 have crossed the picket line.

Our strategy includes reaching out to the community, students and of course to other unions.  It isn’t based on waiting for the AFL-CIO or others to win our fight with management.

We know that an independent union, a minority of workers with a powerful and correct perspective, can win and lead the way for all of labor.  That’s the significance of AMFA and our independent policy.

The strike by our members at Northwest Airlines is the most significant labor battle-taking place in the country.  Its outcome will set the tone for labor relations for the near future.  A victory will open the door for a declining labor movement to rise again, and begin to take on the political, economic and social policies of an anti-labor White House and Congress, courts and corporate structures.

A defeat can accelerate the decline of unions—independent as well as those affiliated to the AFL-CIO and its rival.  Labor has been in full retreat for two decades.  The strike is an acid test for unions.

The impact will go far beyond the defeat of the PATCO air traffic controllers’ strike of 1981.  Some 25 years later labor is much weaker.  The failure of the AFL-CIO officialdom to rally to the PATCO union, and its verbal-only support to the Eastern Airline strike less than a decade later, led to new retreats for airline labor.

An employers’ victory today would embolden even more frontal attacks to bring “replacement workers”—scabs—in all industries.

Those of us in the airline industry know this scenario based on a decade of concessions and setbacks.  We at United Airlines continue to operate under Chapter 11 bankruptcy.  It is a likely step that the tyrannical managers of Northwest Airlines, Delta Airlines and other carriers intend to utilize, to seek to break the back of working men and women.

The outcome is not inevitable, as our striking brothers and sisters at Northwest are showing against big odds.  The NWA scab-herding plan—that is, using their allies in the other unions on the property as well as replacement scabs—is not working.  The truth is slowly coming out. How safe are the scab-maintained aircraft?

Which side are you on?  We must ask every worker.

History Is on Our Side

History shows how a small group of workers with a proper perspective and strategy can win. We can learn how workers stood up, struck and used creative tactics to win against the employers and the bosses’ allies in government.

In the early 1930s after the Great Depression, workers suffered major defeats as millions lost their jobs.  The American Federation of Labor (organized labor of the time) in 1920 had about 4 million members.  By 1933, it was down to 2 million.

In the early 1930s, most strikes went defeated.  The bosses were imposing slave-like working conditions.  It looked bleak.  Unemployment was massive.

In 1934, three important strikes by men and women like our strikers at Northwest took up the battle and changed history for all of labor.  The three strikes took place in two of the cities that the current NWA strike is occurring: Toledo Auto-Lite, outside of Detroit; the Minneapolis truck drivers’ strike; and the general strike in San Francisco that was led by (Longshore president) Harry Bridges.

The three strikes were significant because workers not only struck; they also won broad support from the community, farmers and others who saw that “an injury to the strikers was an injury to all working people.”

It is in that spirit that we see today in the formation of Strike Support Committees in the Bay Area, Minneapolis and Detroit.  Working people and students see the big stakes in the outcome of the strike.  They see the role of scabs and the betrayal of the union leaders of the unions crossing our picket lines at Northwest.  Scabherding by other unions is a travesty and must stop.

Not surprisingly, not only did those three victories in 1934 open the door to mass unionizing of production workers, they also began to transform many of the old craft unions of that period.  The strike wave weakened Jim Crow racist unionism.  It led to other fundamental changes.

It led the pilots’ union of the day to push Congress to add airlines into the infamous 1926 Railway Labor Act (RLA)—the first national laws allowing collective bargaining in the country.  The RLA was mainly written to limit the powers of rail unions in transportation but was extended to airline labor.

What makes the RLA unique is that it requires workers at airlines and railroads to win certification nationwide.  Unlike the unions under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) created in the 1930s, where unionization is allowed factory by factory, that isn’t so for the airlines.

The positive side of the law is once a union is able to organize an airline, it applies nationwide.  The negative is that the law restricts our ability to easily go on strike since the contract never expires.  It is a drawn out process that even allows White House intervention to prevent a strike.

The fact that the Bush White House decided not to intervene, after saying he was concerned about national security, is a sign of how closely the Bush team is working with the owners of Northwest to break the AMFA strike and our union.  The current Secretary of Labor Elaine Chou was on the NWA Board before taking her current job.

The unholy alliance of the tyrannical corporate powers, the reactionary intervention of the White House on the side of NWA management, and the failure of the top official labor union leadership to actively rally behind the workers at Northwest because of petty factionalism and hostility toward the rank and file decision to organize as the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, are all failing to break our morale or strike.

A unified striking membership along with a strong solidarity movement for the Northwest strikers will bring NWA management to its knees.

It can happen and will happen with the broad support of working people all over the country.  I firmly believe that AMFA’s strike at Northwest can be a turning point for our union and the entire labor movement.

An injury to one is an injury to all!
No to scabherding!
No to struck work!
Join and honor the Union Picket!

ATC 119, November-December 2005