- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 4, 2005

An increasing number of striking Northwest Airlines mechanics are finding new jobs so they can make mortgage payments, car payments or pay college tuition for their children.

“I’m glad I had something to fall back on,” said Robert Williamson, who worked at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport as a Northwest plant mechanic for seven years.

Mr. Williamson, who was laid off just before the strike began but who could return to his job if the labor dispute is resolved, began a full-time job as an auto mechanic at Mike Pallone Chevrolet in Springfield two weeks ago.

As the strike lingers, mechanics are making ends meet by painting houses, fixing transmissions and remodeling homes.

The 4,430 members of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association went on strike 17 days ago, when they rejected Northwest’s demand to cut wages 26 percent and eliminate half their jobs.

Northwest, the nation’s fourth-largest airline, wants the mechanics union to agree to $176 million in concessions as part of an overall effort to cut labor costs by $1.1 billion.

On Sept. 2, union members received their last checks from the airline for work they did before the strike began Aug. 20. AMFA isn’t paying mechanics from a strike fund, which typically provides union members with modest compensation to help pay bills.

For months, union leaders urged members to prepare for the strike by saving money, paying off debt and shedding unnecessary expenses.

But some are finding new work because they don’t know how long the strike will last or if they will ever return to the airline.

“It’s about survival. No matter what, you have to pay the bills,” said Wayne Raeburn, an aircraft mechanic at Reagan Airport who worked at Northwest for 11 years before getting laid off just before the strike began.

Now he works for various contractors who do home improvement.

“Officially, I’m still looking. I’m just doing this to make ends meet,” Mr. Raeburn said.

Jim Furdyn, an aircraft mechanic who commuted to Reagan Airport from his home in Cherry Hill, N.J., is trying to make a living by working on cars in his driveway and importing auto parts for foreign cars, a home-based business he started three years ago.

“Anything I can do,” said Mr. Furdyn, who worked at Northwest for 11 years. “It’s a horrible time for my wife and I.”

Between those jobs, he spends his time looking for full-time work because he doesn’t expect to return to Northwest. While the union balked at the airline’s demand to cut 2,000 of its jobs, AMFA negotiators did reveal last week that their final offer to Northwest included eliminating as many as 1,300 jobs.

“My gut tells me I’ll never work for Northwest Airlines again,” Mr. Furdyn said.

Even when union members find another full-time job, they say it is nearly impossible to earn as much as they did working for Northwest. Mr. Williamson said he earned $30 an hour at the airline, and he earns $22 an hour as an auto mechanic.

Top pay for AMFA mechanics was $36.39 an hour.

“The pay and benefits were very good,” said Jim Darlington, a facilities maintenance worker from Stephens City, Va., who commuted to Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport to keep his job with Northwest.

The strike and fragile state of the airline industry emphasize the need for mechanics to have a secondary source of income, Tom DeLeon, an aircraft mechanic, said last week while walking the picket line outside Reagan Airport.

“You’ve got to have something on the side. This business has never been stable,” he said.

Mr. DeLeon is working to obtain a real estate license.

While some mechanics have found new jobs, many others are still looking.

Mr. Darlington, who worked for Northwest for 10 years, has mailed three resumes and hopes a former boss who now works at a local aerospace company will hire him. It is awkward to be 50 years old and forced to start a new career, he said.

“This is the first time I’ve been unemployed. It’s a feeling I’ve never experienced before,” he said.

But with a child enrolled at Virginia Tech and another enrolled at James Madison University, Mr. Darlington says he must continue working.

“A lot of people are still on the picket line, so some are hanging in there,” he said. “But how long can you wait before you have an income?”

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