Defiant Northwest Airlines mechanics still picket. Their union urges them to stay strong. But airline observers and even some strikers say...

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MINNEAPOLIS — Defiant Northwest Airlines mechanics still picket. Their union urges them to stay strong. But airline observers and even some strikers say it’s as good as over.

Northwest says it is nearly finished hiring permanent replacements, including many former strikers. Many of the mechanics, cleaners and custodians who walked out Aug. 20 have gotten other jobs.

“It was doomed from the start,” said Dave Wegleitner, a building custodian who picketed for about six weeks before taking his old job back with a 30 percent pay cut. “The company had every aspect of what we did taken care of.”

On Wednesday, Northwest spokesman Bill Mellon said the carrier has finished hiring permanent replacements in Minneapolis. “Overall, the airline has hired nearly all the 880 technicians it requires,” he said. Northwest has said previously it would need mechanics only in Minneapolis and Detroit.

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The Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA) made a huge bet that Northwest would struggle without them and travelers would flee, forcing the airline to offer a better deal. On Day 10, AMFA National Director O.V. Delle-Femine predicted: “In a couple weeks, people are going to see the failure of this airline.”

But Northwest followed through on months of public statements that it had lined up enough replacement workers to fly without union mechanics. Every other Northwest union kept working. Although it struggled with late flights in the days before and after the strike, it kept flying.

Northwest did return to the bargaining table but only to offer a worse deal for the union. Its offer to retain 2,750 union members on the eve of the strike dropped to just 500 when negotiators met again last month.

The union promised a vote on that offer and then reversed itself, saying Northwest inserted language barring retaliation against mechanics who crossed the picket line.

“This strike’s over,” said aviation consultant Michael Boyd of Evergreen, Colo. “Northwest was ready for a strike. They were not playing games. They had a plan which they worked on for 18 months, and they were ready to do it.”

Delle-Femine said he doesn’t think Northwest has really filled almost all the positions once held by members of his union. He said some members are still getting phone calls from the airline asking them to come back.

“Our pickets are still out there, and it’s really doing harm to this carrier, he said. “They’re still struggling to hire people.”

Delle-Femine visited strikers in Minneapolis on Saturday and said their morale is high and they’re prepared for a long strike.

“What these pundits are saying, it’s rather premature,” he said.

Boyd said AMFA’s rhetoric against accepting pay cuts boxed it in when it became clear that Northwest was serious about getting significant concessions. Its Web site still says that in 30 years it has never accepted concessions, even though AMFA negotiators eventually acknowledged the need for concessions while disagreeing with Northwest about their size.

Many union members are moving on.

Strike committee chairman Mike Klemm said some members have gotten other jobs and still picket when they can. At least 146 have crossed the picket line and gone back to their old jobs, according to the Local 33 Web site, which posts their names and, sometimes, pictures, on a “Wall of Shame.” The homes of several who have gone back to work have been picketed.

One of the pictures was of several pickets outside of Jerry Sowells’ home. Sowells, a mechanic, has long opposed AMFA but walked the picket line during the first few weeks of the strike. He decided to go back when it appeared the union was going to let members vote on the company’s demands, figuring if those were going to be the conditions he has to work in, he might as well get back to work.

“The first two days I was back I actually was physically ill I was so upset,” he said. “It was really hard. It was probably one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make.

“I’ve never been an AMFA supporter; I don’t share a lot of their ideals. But I am a union supporter, and to cross and go back is against everything I’ve ever been trained.”

Wegleitner, the building custodian, said he went back because the union refused to allow a vote on the company’s offer.

“They never brought anything to a vote. They were not willing to compromise, they were not willing to let us decide on our fate,” he said.

Wegleitner also walked the picket line in the strike’s early weeks.

“They had a few slogans. It was like a pep rally. They said ‘We can bring them to their knees in two weeks.’ Those two weeks turned into two months.”

Layoffs at other carriers have swelled the labor pool with experienced mechanics, said Charles Craver, a labor-law expert George Washington University.

“The [mechanics] in particular have just had delusions of grandeur,” he said. “They think they’re irreplaceable, and they’re not.”

Attendants open

to temporary cuts

MINNEAPOLIS — Northwest Airlines flight attendants would accept temporary pay cuts worth roughly $117 million to buy time to reach a permanent agreement, their union said Wednesday, and the airline said it will try to reach temporary deals with two other unions as well.

A Nov. 16 bankruptcy-court hearing is planned on Northwest’s request to cancel its union contracts. The airline’s larger unions have said that’s not enough time to negotiate permanent cuts.

Northwest spokesman Bill Mellon said the nation’s fourth-largest airline is hopeful it can reach interim agreements with pilots, flight attendants and ground workers before Nov. 16.

The airline said in a statement that it wants temporary cuts worth 60 percent of its $1.4 billion labor-savings goal to be in place by mid-November before it will agree to push back the hearing.