While University Regent Andrea Fischer Newman celebrated the memory of Arthur Miller last Friday, members of a striking airline mechanics union protested her participation in the tribute to the world-renowned playwright, saying her involvement in the Northwest Airlines labor dispute was an affront to Miller’s legacy.
During the naming ceremony for the new Charles R. Walgreen, Jr. Drama Center and Arthur Miller Theater, members of the Airline Mechanics Fraternal Association picketed Newman, a Republican from Ann Arbor who is a senior vice president for government affairs at Northwest Airlines
The AMFA has been on strike against Northwest Airlines since Aug. 20 over layoffs and contract disagreements. When the airline decided to lay off many of its mechanics and cut pay for those still with the company, the mechanics’ union began its strike.
The airline continued to operate with replacement workers but was still forced into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Since then, the airline and the union have been unable to agree on a contract, and the unionized mechanics have continued to strike, attacking the airline for misleading its employees and using unqualified replacement workers who they say have made flying conditions unsafe.
Repeating their message from a previous strike outside the regent’s apartment, mechanics accused Newman of misleading employees about the financial well-being of the company before it declared bankruptcy.
Strikers said they were protesting at the theater’s naming ceremony to raise awareness of the union’s grievances and to protest Newman as a senior executive at Northwest.
Newman spoke briefly at the event, which was held in Rackham Auditorium, to introduce University President Mary Sue Coleman.
Seven picketers entered the auditorium before the ceremony. They booed when Newman spoke and left after her brief introductory remarks.
One union member said Newman’s presence at the event was hypocritical. “From what I’ve read about Arthur Miller, he was very outspoken on social injustices, just the opposite of what (Newman) speaks for,” said Ralph Neopolitan, a mechanic for Northwest and an AMFA member.
Newman has been on the University Board of Regents since 1994. In 2000, she served as vice chair of President Bush’s Michigan campaign. In the last presidential election, she was a “Pioneer” level fundraiser for the Bush’s re-election campaign, meaning she raised at least $100,000.
Newman refused to comment and referred The Michigan Daily to a Northwest spokesperson.
In their two protests at the University, members of the mechanics union have stressed that replacement workers used by the airline are inexperienced and prone to make mistakes.
“Their replacement workers aren’t up to speed, and they’re not properly trained. Some of these people have not even seen the airplanes they’re working on,” said John Papudnick, who has been an aircraft mechanic for 21 years.
Neopolitan said simply, “It’s not safe to fly on Northwest right now.”
These claims are somewhat validated by a Federal Aviation Administration report originally obtained by the Minneapolis Star Tribune and published on Oct. 1. The report cited numerous instances in which replacement workers made serious mistakes or oversights, but they were either caught by supervisors before takeoff or did not directly threaten the safety of the flight.
Northwest spokesperson Kurt Ebenhoch said that both the picketers and the Star Tribune were mistaken. He said that 64 percent of Northwest’s replacement workers had at least 10 years of experience and that Northwest’s operations had actually improved under the replacements.
Protestors remained outside for the duration of the ceremony. They picketed on both sides of Washington Street in silence or chatted amongst themselves. Most carried placards with pictures of Newman that read “Face of Corporate Greed” and “Look Kids, Lying Does Pay.”
There were few students in the area. Members of the pro-labor campus activist group Students Organizing for Labor and Economic Equality, which supported the protest outside Newman’s Main Street apartment earlier this month, were not present at Friday’s demonstration. Many students who saw the strikers didn’t know what they were protesting.
“I’m not really sure what they’re out there for,” said Andrew More, an LSA freshman who attended the naming ceremony.
Negotiations between Northwest and AMFA are ongoing. The AMFA’s members will vote on Northwest’s most recent proposal – which would save about 500 out of 4,400 union jobs – within two weeks.