Laid-off Northwest employees criticize airline, seek aid

by Justin Ware

Unemployed airline workers shifted the blame from low passenger demand to their former employers in a Wednesday meeting before the Senate Select Committee on Air Transportation and Economic Security.

Airline union representatives said Northwest Airlines is overworking some of its current employees instead of bringing back some who lost their jobs nearly two weeks ago.

Kip Hedges, president of the Local 1833 machinists union, said Northwest is “using the crisis as an excuse to restructure.”

Hedges, a Northwest employee, said he knows of employees working overtime to meet up with recent increases in passenger demand.

“Why not call workers back off the streets who want to work?” he said.

Bill Reis, vice president of the Local 33 aircraft mechanics union, said Northwest had eliminated jobs from his local before the Sept. 11 attacks by moving maintenance positions out of the state.

“Northwest Airlines began laying off employees from (our Local) in May of this year,” Reis said. “Sixty-seven of those employees are still unemployed.”

He said the airline moved checking procedures on Boeing 747 and 757 aircraft out of Minnesota.

A 747 requires roughly 380 employees to check, and a 757 requires about 180 employees.

Northwest refused to comment on the accusations.

Several speakers giving testimony praised the state’s Dislocated Worker Program.

Last year, the state House and Gov. Jesse Ventura wanted to reallocate the duties of the program to other government departments.

Those in favor of spreading out the program’s functions said it was outdated and its responsibilities could be handled elsewhere.

At Wednesday’s meeting, instead of disbanding the program, union leaders and state senators said an increase to the program is the only plausible move in the present situation.

“The Dislocated Worker Program is an investment in the future of these employees,” said Rebecca Yanisch, commissioner of the Department of Trade and Economic Development.

Yanisch left the meeting early to board a flight to Washington, D.C., where she will ask the federal government for $24 million in aid to the program.

The program could help many employees who do not have training or job experience outside the airline industry.

“Unfortunately, where they have dedicated their training does not translate well into other jobs,” said Mark McClain, captain and chairman of the Master Executive Council for the Airline Pilots Association.

McClain said many of the union’s members laid off were first- or second-year employees and do not have the economic stability of senior pilots. Some have more than $100,000 in student loans.

Many representatives support transferring funds intended for future use to the present situation.

“Maybe we should use our rainy-day funds,” Hedges said. “It’s starting to rain … and there’s a hurricane 10 miles off the coast.

“We need immediate and long-term relief,” he said.

Yanisch brought up the “ripple effect” on the travel industry, caused by the slower-than-normal airline traffic, as justification for federal aid.

“We are just seeing the tip of the iceberg with the 4,500 Northwest layoffs,” she said. “I think we really need the $24 million to help these employees.”

Justin Ware welcomes comments at [email protected]