August 25, 2005
A Maverick Union Chief Now in Search of Unity
By STEVEN GREENHOUSE
AS PRESIDENT OF THE UNION representing mechanics at Northwest Airlines, O. V. Delle-Femine has repeatedly urged, almost begged, the rest of organized labor to show solidarity with his union's walkout.
But other unions have largely shunned his call, and that is hardly surprising considering that Mr. Delle-Femine has long been viewed within the labor movement as Mr. Antisolidarity.
Ever since he founded the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association 43 years ago, Mr. Delle-Femine has been something of a labor pariah, enraging the machinists and other unions by repeatedly seeking to steal their members.
A lonely, often quixotic figure known for sleeping in airports as he crisscrossed the country to enlist members, Mr. Delle-Femine (pronounced dell-FEM-in-knee) has said that other unions do a poor job representing mechanics. He has further angered the labor community by asserting that elite mechanics should not be in the same union as less-exalted baggage handlers, whom his union has called "bag smashers."
Notwithstanding the minuscule support from other unions - including Northwest's other unions - Mr. Delle-Femine contends that the 4,430 striking mechanics have the upper hand in their showdown with the airline. But Northwest has kept most of its fleet operating by hiring 1,900 mechanics as replacements and so far, the airline insists, it has maintained close to a regular schedule.
Northwest said that it completed 96.9 percent of its flights on Tuesday - a statement that union officials assert is inaccurately upbeat and aimed at demoralizing the strikers.
"It's unconscionable what they did - they planned this for 18 months," Mr. Delle-Femine said in a telephone interview. "It's just a union-busting operation. They want to destroy our union. It's a sham and it's a sad situation."
At age 72, Mr. Delle-Femine still speaks in the same stout, unyielding machine-gun patter that has unnerved airline executives and other labor leaders for decades. He has attacked Northwest without inhibition for outsourcing jobs and for spending months training replacements.
Five-foot-one, bespectacled and built like a fire plug, Mr. Delle-Femine asserted that Northwest could not sustain operations adequately for over a week or two during the strike.
"What we're hoping to achieve, like any other strike, is to force the company back to the bargaining table to become realistic," he said. "We cannot accept their draconian proposals."
Northwest has demanded that Mr. Delle-Femine accept $176 million in wage cuts, other concessions and a halving of the number of mechanics, saying tough steps are needed to avoid bankruptcy. And it insists that it is prepared to ride out a long strike to achieve its goals.