Northwest Airlines Corp.'s ability to keep flying while its mechanics are on strike is a telling example of how the airline industry's severe financial troubles are sapping the clout of unions, analysts said.
Just ask 30-year mechanic Sander Shipper, who was walking the picket line Thursday at Los Angeles International Airport as Northwest flights came and went.
"No doubt" the unions have seen their power ebb at distressed airlines such as Northwest, said Shipper, who turned 57 when the walkout began a week ago today. "It's been very unsettling for the employees."
In the past, a strike by a major employee group meant the targeted carrier had little chance of staying airborne, especially if the airline's other unions refused to cross the picket lines. But when Northwest brought in replacement workers for Shipper and 4,400 other members of the striking Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Assn., other unionized employees -- pilots, flight attendants and other ground workers -- reported for work. That has allowed Northwest to operate more than 95% of its flights.
The lack of labor solidarity partly reflected the go-it-alone stance of Shipper's union, which has alienated much of organized labor by plucking members from other unions. But it also showed that airline unions were thinking twice about using their most potent bargaining tactic against a company that is already on the brink of bankruptcy.
A strike now, analysts say, might ultimately mean no airline and no job.
"In that sense, the unions are losing quite a bit of their power," said Richard Gritta, a business professor at the University of Portland.
Employees already have seen UAL Corp.'s United Airlines and US Airways Group Inc. file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and they know that Northwest and Delta Air Lines Inc. are dangerously close to doing so.
The industry has lost more than $30 billion since 2000 and is expected to lose $5 billion more this year, in large part because of record-high fuel prices. So the airlines have repeatedly gone to their employees for concessions to stay alive.
This year, three of United's major labor groups -- the mechanics union, the Assn. of Flight Attendants and the International Assn. of Machinists and Aerospace Workers -- threatened to strike at various times in protest of United's demand for more wage and benefit cuts.
But the airline warned that if the unions didn't come to terms, it would ask the bankruptcy judge for permission to impose the cuts. The workers stayed on the job.
And even if a trip to U.S. Bankruptcy Court doesn't sink an airline entirely, it now poses a serious threat to the workers' retirement plans. United and US Airways both received Bankruptcy Court approval to dump their pension plans on the federal government as a way to cut costs -- a move that is likely to result in substantially lower retirement benefits for thousands of workers.
"The unions are seeing the reality of the situation," said Fred Allvine, a professor emeritus and airline expert at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "Their jobs and the future of their airlines are in very deep jeopardy."
The last major airline strike occurred in 1998, when Northwest's pilots, led by the Air Line Pilots Assn. union, grounded the Eagan, Minn.-based carrier for more than two weeks.
Even the pilots union, arguably the most powerful labor organization in the industry, agrees that a strike isn't the weapon it was five years ago, when the airlines were flush -- at least among the big carriers now on the critical list.
"Nobody is kidding anybody in threatening to strike," said union President Duane Woerth, who is also a Northwest 747 captain. The pilots instead focus on "damage control to live another day, worry about job security and wait for better times."
Still, not every airline union leader sees it that way.
"Today our members are prepared to strike more so than five years ago" because "people are at the brink now and willing to say, 'Enough is enough,' " said Robert Roach Jr., a general vice president of the International Assn. of Machinists, which represents airline mechanics and other ground workers.
Even in bankruptcy, an airline has creditors and suppliers that have a financial interest in keeping the carrier afloat, Roach said. They tell airline executives "we better listen to these people" like the machinist union to avoid a strike that could lead to liquidation, Roach said. "That's the leverage we have."
Northwest, the nation's fourth-largest airline by passenger traffic, is seeking $1.1 billion in annual labor savings from its workforce, including $176 million from its mechanics union members. The savings from that union would include laying off about half of its current workers at Northwest.
Shipper, the striking mechanic at LAX, said he and other members of the mechanics union believed that a strike was the only alternative left after Northwest kept pressing for the layoffs.