On the last Friday in September, an administrative law judge at the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development ruled that the custodians on strike against Northwest Airlines were eligible for unemployment benefits. Workers who walk off the job generally don't qualify, but Judge Richard E. Croft ruled that the cleaners' circumstances proved exceptional. The judge used a well-worn precedent in Minnesota labor law: The pay cuts being imposed by the airline--25 percent on wages that had hovered around $30,000 a year--were so drastic it was unreasonable to expect the workers to go along with them. They were effectively "locked out" through no fault of their own. Northwest's announcement that the custodians' jobs were being outsourced was just legal icing on the cake.
The following Monday, Croft applied the same test to the custodians' union brethren, the mechanics. But even though the pay cuts imposed on the mechanics were just as big, the judge ruled that the technicians had walked off the job voluntarily and weren't eligible to receive anything. His reasoning: The mechanics were highly paid workers who should have been able to take a 25 percent cut. The fact that virtually all of their jobs were being eliminated as well was irrelevant, he ruled; the mechanics had not been fired because they were on strike.
The judge's reasoning infuriated Carl Ziegler. A line mechanic at Northwest for 23 years, Ziegler earned the top of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association's pay scale before the strike, $33.05 per hour, or almost $69,000 a year. Ziegler has three kids, one in college and one at home, and it made him angry that the judge would decree that he should suddenly be able to make ends meet on $52,000. The question was infuriating, but academic: Highly paid or not, his job had been eliminated.
Ziegler needed the $515 a week in unemployment he'd hoped to qualify for. And, lacking any solid job prospects at the age of 50, he really needed the state job retraining assistance that would come with unemployment benefits. Instead, he's supported his family doing odd jobs. After he pays the $840 rent on his house in Forest Lake, Ziegler says he had just enough for gas and groceries. He has no health insurance. "I've been doing small jobs maintaining small airplanes," he says. "I've got enough work to keep busy while I look for work. But Christmas was certainly modest. I got few gifts for my kids. I'm not going out at all."
When the strike began, the argument over whether the union's members walked out or were pushed seemed far less important than whether Northwest could stay out of bankruptcy court and in the air. But after five months on the picket line, the question has become vitally important to the strikers and to Northwest's other unions, whose members now face similar requests for concessions.
In a second opinion reaffirming his decision, the judge cited the unrelated case of a pilot who was denied unemployment after quitting when he was asked to take a pay cut of 25 percent--from $200,000 to $150,000.
"This unemployment law judge would not award unemployment benefits to an individual who could be paid $150,000 per year, even though their pay cut amounts to the same percentage," Croft wrote. "A 25 percent pay cut on workers who are highly paid does not have as harsh an impact as a corresponding cut on low-paid workers. Suffice it to say that if an individual was making, for example, $7 per hour, a cut of even 5 percent is onerous."
This reasoning doesn't impress Carl Ziegler, who wouldn't dare dream of making $150,000 even if he had a job to go back to. But it does scare Northwest's flight attendants and, local labor attorneys say, should scare its pilots and other workers. Indeed, in an attempt to preserve members' unemployment eligibility, the flight attendants' union has agreed to some voluntary furloughs. (Representatives of the pilots union could not be reached by press time.)
Labor and employment lawyer Greg Corwin insists that a worker's financial situation "has no relevance to the reasoning and the policy behind this," adding, "The fact remains that you're getting booted out, and it doesn't matter how much you're making."
Stephen Cooper, a Minneapolis labor attorney and former commissioner of the state Department of Human Rights, agrees: "What you're looking at is, was it more tantamount to quitting or was it more tantamount to being discharged? The strongest argument the employees have is that this isn't a strike over pay, it's a strike over Northwest's desire to eliminate their jobs."
AMFA leaders note that every other state where Northwest employed mechanics (most notably Michigan, home to the airline's other major hub) quickly ruled the strike a lockout and is paying benefits. Corwin and AMFA Local 33 President Ted Ludwig both add that the administrative law judge in question is an employee of a state agency headed by a political appointee who serves at the pleasure of a governor who has consistently sided with Northwest.
"Why isn't the governor helping out the citizens of Minnesota who are in need?" Ludwig asks. "Why does the state need to pile on?"
A Northwest representative says that the company has in the past proposed dropping its objections to the mechanics' unemployment claims in exchange for AMFA's agreement to end its strike. Union members have rejected this option.
AMFA is in the process of appealing the decision to the state Court of Appeals, but the union's attorney says it may be months before there's a decision. And whatever the Court of Appeals rules, Cooper adds, there's a good chance the matter will go to the state Supreme Court.
Carl Ziegler hopes to have a job long before then. He knows it's a fantasy, but he's not quite ready to give up aviation. "I'm hoping some other airlines will come into town," he says. "Southwest might be a good player. I'm hoping this is the lull before the storm."