In a world known for solidarity and brotherhood, the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA) stands almost alone among labor unions...

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WASHINGTON — In a world known for solidarity and brotherhood, the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA) stands almost alone among labor unions, even as 4,400 of its members walk the picket line.

The Northwest Airlines mechanics and cleaners who went on strike Saturday are the first workers at a major U.S. airline to hit the picket line in seven years. But, despite major upheaval in the industry where many pilots, flight attendants and other workers have had to make concessions in pay and benefits, the striking workers are finding little support from other unions.

AMFA, which grew in recent years by winning members away from other unions, is an outsider in the labor movement. “They are a go-it-alone union. They are proud of that,” said Richard Bank, director of collective bargaining with the AFL-CIO. “They made their living raiding AFL-CIO affiliates with that message. So it’s rather surprising to see them now calling for solidarity with their cause.”

But what happens to AMFA and its Northwest mechanics could have a broad impact on organized labor and the airline industry, well beyond Northwest Airlines, according to labor experts.

“This is a perfect target for Northwest,” said Charles Craver, a professor of labor law at George Washington University. “It’s a union that is sort of weak. It’s not AFL-CIO. If this were (the AFL-CIO’s International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers), Northwest might be a little more nervous.”

Others have taken cuts

The airline’s other employees have continued working during the strike. In contrast, nearly 1,000 baggage handlers, counter agents and other employees walked off the job earlier this month in sympathy when employees with a British Airways caterer were fired, causing the airline to cancel hundreds of flights.

Other industries, struggling to deal with their own labor costs, will be watching the strike closely. Northwest said it needs to cut labor costs by $1.1 billion, and its pilots have agreed to a 15 percent pay cut. AMFA said the airline is seeking to cut its mechanic work force in half and cut the remaining workers’ pay by 25 percent.

Since its inception, AMFA has been perceived as an upstart by the AFL-CIO. It was “more of a rogue union that came in and took advantage of a period of high grievances with machinists and promised these guys the world,” said Robert Bruno, professor of labor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. AMFA’s big break came in 1999 when the mechanics at Northwest decided to decertify the machinists union and move to AMFA instead.

That created a major rift with the AFL-CIO and its member unions, which accuse AMFA of stealing members. The discord remains between the AFL-CIO and AMFA and between AMFA and the unions that recently split from the AFL-CIO. That leaves the union largely on its own during its biggest fight yet.

The relatively small union was founded in 1962 to represent only skilled mechanics. Then in 1999, it pulled Northwest’s mechanics away from the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM). In 2003, United Airlines’ mechanics also left the IAM and joined AMFA after the IAM agreed to a 13 percent wage cut.

Raids caused isolation

AMFA has about 17,000 members, compared with the IAM’s approximately 100,000.

That pattern of “raiding” has isolated AMFA from other, more established unions, which refuse to respond to the strike. That leaves Northwest Airlines with little resistance and what will probably be a relatively easy time ridding itself of workers represented by AMFA.

“I think the mechanics have shown a lot of courage but not much longer-term strategy here,” said Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “The kind of outreach that is necessary to have a much broader base, they really didn’t do.”

As it became clear AMFA might strike, it asked other unions for support — with little success. The IAM’s general vice president, Robert Roach, wrote AMFA’s leader, O.V. Delle-Femine, saying, “It is about time that AMFA recognizes that it cannot win a major labor dispute standing in isolation.” He went on: “IAM members will not be duped into standing with AMFA. AMFA has never honored an IAM picket line.”

AMFA received similar cold responses from other unions.

Support from ILWU

However, the union and its strikers are receiving other kinds of support, said Steve MacFarlane, AMFA spokesman.

“We’re getting a tremendous amount of help from all the other unions individually. We’re getting all kinds of information from our fellow workers” who remain on the job, he said. “We never expected the others to honor our picket line, but of course we would have welcomed that,” he said. “But we never calculated that as a part of our strategy.”

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) has spoken out in support of AMFA. “I ask all ILWU members to do everything in their power to help these workers in the struggle as if it were your own,” James Spinosa, international president, said in a letter to the union’s locals.

The employees and staff of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters will not be flying Northwest Airlines. But the group is not organizing a formal boycott, and its members are making their own decisions about how they will respond, said Leigh Strope, a Teamsters spokeswoman. Not flying Northwest is “a show of respect for the workers at Northwest Airlines rather than a sign of support for AMFA,” she said Friday in an e-mailed statement.

Flight attendants

worry about safety

Flight attendants at Northwest Airlines are expressing concern about the safety of the carrier’s planes four days into a strike by the company’s mechanics.

Members of the Professional Flight Attendants Association are calling union offices with comments about some work being done by the mechanics’ replacements, spokesman Bob Krabbe said yesterday.

Members have made hundreds of calls, complaining that some of the airline’s replacements don’t know how to make some repairs and that delays are frustrating customers, Krabbe said.

“Many of our people have called in and said: ‘We’re concerned about flying on these aircraft,’ ” Krabbe said. The union represents about 10,000 Northwest employees.

The flight attendants’ comments came as Northwest worked to keep its planes flying with more than 1,200 replacement mechanics, part of a $107 million contingency plan devised before the strike began Friday.

Mechanics and cleaners went on strike over the company’s proposal to cut $176 million in pay, benefits and jobs to reduce costs.

The airline is still in negotiations with its other unions, including the flight attendants, as it tries to lower labor costs by $1.1 billion annually and avert a bankruptcy filing.

Bloomberg News