Editor's note: This is a column by Nick Coleman that was originally published Aug. 21, 2005.
This isn't a labor strike. Labor strikes have winners and losers. This is a funeral march. At the end of a funeral march, there are no winners or losers.
There is just sadness.
Maybe that's why the striking Northwest Airlines mechanics look more grief-stricken than angry: They walked away from jobs they were losing anyway. It's like a man abandoning his burning home by saying, "I think I'll take a walk and get some fresh air."
Better to die standing on a picket line than on your knees.
"If we didn't strike, my job would be gone anyway," said Ken Dodge, 57, of Eden Prairie, who, despite 27 years at the airline, figures his job would be among the many Northwest wants to eliminate. "I find it all hard to believe."
Dodge was handing out strike leaflets in front of the Lindbergh terminal Saturday afternoon, taking a four-hour shift with Harold Rishel, a 55-year-old mechanic from Lakeville. Both repair radio and navigation gear.
Dodge pulls broken units from cockpits; Rishel fixes them in the shop. They never met until Saturday. But they had a lot in common: a dread of the future.
"We're striking for the right to a 15 percent pay cut," said Rishel. "I don't think that sounds selfish. But I expect they won't give it to us. I have my resume out there, and if I get a job offer, I'm out of here."
Something intangible has been sucked out of the life of the Twin Cities. Our friends and neighbors have worn the colors of the hometown airline for decades, and the connection among good jobs, good service and a good company was part of a formula that made us proud to live here. I grew up across the alley from a family whose dad was a Northwest mechanic, and every kid on the block knew what Mr. Ryan did. When he died, some of his tools were on the altar at his funeral. Today we're watching a funeral for a way of life.
"It's just the start of a lot of things that are going to go down in this country," said John Stime, a mechanic from Rosemount with 26 years.
Stime was wearing a crisp and clean mechanics uniform and standing ramrod straight, like a proud but defeated rebel awaiting execution. Most of the other pickets looked like they were waiting to play softball.
Only about 70 are permitted to picket near the main terminal at a time, and most must stay across the street. Only 24 strikers – two at each door - are allowed to stand near airport entrances. And they can't carry signs. Instead, they hand out fliers, looking for all the world as if they are handing out coupons for a State Fair special on window replacements.
"I need a shirt that says `On Strike' so people won't think I'm a Hare Krishna," joked Greg Porter of Bloomington.
When the mechanics struck Northwest in 1982, the mood was more militant. In one incident, rocks were thrown at the cars of workers who tried to cross a picket line, smashing windshields. On Saturday, some of the strikers reminisced about an era when tempers were high, but so were the fortunes of the airline and its workers.
"Some guys were going to cross the picket line, but they changed their minds," mechanic Tom Crawford said with a smile. Crawford was carrying his grandson, Devin, so it took a while for me to decipher the graphic on the 1982-vintage strike T-shirt he was wearing: It showed "grips" for throwing rocks at cars more accurately.
That was a joke. This strike is not.
"In 1982 we all figured we'd be back on the job after the strike," Stime said. "This time we're fighting for survival."
So is the airline, which is losing $4 million a day.
"This isn't an old-fashioned strike, where they'd fight over the biggest piece of the pie," said Pat Hogan, spokesman for the Metropolitan Airports Commission. "This time, whoever gets the most still gets less."
No wonder we're all shaking our heads. This is a funeral procession, and the mourners are getting into line, trying to look good at the graveside.
Whether the blame goes to the corporate raiders who bled Northwest dry and mortgaged it to the brink or should be placed on competition, 9/11, high fuel prices or the workers themselves is like trying to figure out whether the corpse was murdered, died accidentally or was a suicide. Figuring out the cause won't bring it back.
The grief comes next.
"I am very sad," Jianwei Dong, a computer scientist from Eden Prairie, said as he took a few photographs of strikers before boarding a flight to China to visit his family. "Northwest is a part of life here, like going to see a Vikings game. Northwest brought me here when I came in 1997! I always prefer Northwest. I am even a World Perks member! It is difficult for both parties, but it seems there is no way out.