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Striking Northwest Airlines Workers Question Decisions of Union Leaders<P>By Micheline Maynard 
and Jeremy W. Peters THE NEW YORK TIMES <P>DETROIT <P>

Striking Northwest Airlines Workers Question Decisions of Union Leaders

By Micheline Maynard 
and Jeremy W. Peters


Ten days into a strike against Northwest Airlines, signs of dissent are beginning to bubble up among mechanics union members on picket lines at airports around the country.

In a union known for lively debate, some members of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, which struck Northwest on Aug. 20, are questioning the union leaders’ decision to call a strike without a vote on the airline’s final offer.

Other workers are voicing adamant support for the walkout. But even some of them are looking for other jobs, saying they cannot afford to be out of work.

The union’s 4,430 workers at Northwest are walking picket lines without pay, since AMFA does not have a strike fund. Their medical coverage from the airline runs out on Thursday, and none is available from the union. And in some states, they have no unemployment benefits.

Northwest is using 1,900 substitute workers, including replacement mechanics, contractors and supervisors.

On Sunday, Northwest said its operations had run relatively well over the weekend, although it had canceled 15 flights because of Hurricane Katrina. On Saturday, the airline said 28 percent of its flights were delayed 15 minutes or more; as of midafternoon Sunday, about 13 percent were delayed, airline officials said.

Northwest normally encounters delays involving 20 percent to 22 percent of its flights.

The airline’s last offer to the union called for $176 billion in wage and benefit cuts, including the elimination of 2,000 jobs. It also would have provided for six months’ severance pay and medical coverage for those laid off.

“It’s absolutely ridiculous. I can’t believe they didn’t let us vote on it,” Jeff Doerr, who has been a mechanic at Northwest’s hub in Minneapolis for 15 years, said last week.

“I have 31 years of my life invested in my job,” said Richard S. Paterala, a lead technician at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. In an e-mail message, he said he was “furious” that he did not get to consider the airline’s offer.

But union leaders, including AMFA’s executive director, O.V. Delle-Femine, have said the airline’s final proposal was so unreasonable that the rank and file would surely have turned it down if they had a chance to vote on it.

On Sunday, Delle-Femine said he stood by his decision not to bring the offer to a vote. “We put out feelers on that,” he said, adding that only a small minority of union members thought the offer was worth voting on. “We would have been hung if we brought it out to ratify.”

Labor experts said this stance was justifiable. “No leadership will just present everything that a company offers,” said Herman Benson, founder of the Association for Union Democracy, a nonprofit trade organization that advises unions.

Nor would it send workers to picket lines without their approval, and 93 percent of AMFA members at Northwest voted in favor of a strike in July.