Donnie Smith has already lost his job once at Northwest Airlines Corp. When his mechanic's position was eliminated in Atlanta in 2002, he moved to the Washington area for the airline. The 54-year-old lead technician left his wife on their farm in Griffin, Ga., and took up residence in the basement of a house in Fort Washington.
Smith, who has 34 years with the company, just hopes he will still have his job a year from now, so he can make retirement at age 55.
"Can you believe a guy my age, living in a basement of a home?" Smith said on the picket line Saturday with other striking Northwest mechanics at Reagan National Airport. "I was that close to doing all those plans I had been working toward." He held his thumb and finger a half-inch apart.
Yesterday, Smith was back on the picket line, but he is making plans to return to the farm.
The striking mechanics and maintenance workers at National make up a tiny portion of the 4,400 union members who walked out Saturday morning after negotiations failed to achieve a compromise on jobs and wage cuts sought by the airline. Northwest has a small presence in the Washington area, accounting for just 4.8 percent of flights at National.
But the mechanics here, like their counterparts in larger contingents in Minneapolis, Detroit and elsewhere, are wondering what the future holds and how they will endure if the strike is prolonged. Northwest has replaced the union workers with mechanics laid off from other airlines, and it is unclear whether the strikers will lose their jobs permanently. The airline says it hopes to return to the negotiating table.
Smith doubts the airline will come to the table willing to bargain. "How can they consider the negotiations to be in good faith when they were hiring replacement mechanics 18 months ago, at least?" he said.
The strikers say the replacement workers have not had enough training to do their jobs properly.
"The public needs to know the safety has to be lessened" by replacing these mechanics with fill-ins, said Greg Kuhns, a lead technician from Warrenton who worked for Northwest since 1991. "It takes approximately five years to where they are well trained," he said.
A Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman said the agency has been monitoring the carrier's transition to replacement mechanics since Northwest began training for them. She said many of the replacement workers are certified mechanics.
"We're confident the aircraft aren't leaving the hangar until they are fixed and checked," said FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown.
The mechanics and maintenance workers had their ranks cut in half in 2001. The airline sought to eliminate an additional 2,000 mechanics in the latest negotiations, cutting the payroll in half, the union said. On Saturday, 10 strikers turned up at National, slowly walking in a circle near the entrance to Terminal A. Nine were mechanics and one was an aircraft cleaner
Rugambwa Smart has been a mechanic for 17 years with Northwest. "I'm disappointed with . . . having to strike," he said. Married with three children, the Waldorf resident said he knows how to do home repairs and may try to get by on that. "It's hard, after giving so much of my life to this."
Kuhns, who is married with young sons, said he has saved enough money to get by and lives within his means. But he has been looking for other work. "I can't stay out here [on the picket line] forever," he said.
Marvel Foster, a divorced mother of five grown children, said she believed she had to be on the picket line as a matter of self-respect. The Fort Washington resident has spent 10 years with the company as a tech assistant, cleaning and servicing planes. Foster and others were hoping for an understanding between the union and the airline, but, she said, "I do know there is life after this."
Foster has been looking at other options. But for now, she will hold out hope something good can come of the situation. "What we are standing up for is very important."
Ten years ago, when she first got the job, she was paid $6.65 an hour and drove 100 miles on her commute to and from Baltimore. "I tried to set an example for my kids that you don't quit," she said.
Foster said that one day, when her youngest was due to go to college, she threw her paycheck down on the kitchen table and said, "Don't ever let your paycheck look like this."
Saturday morning, before she drove to the picket line, she called her youngest son to tell him where she was going. "You told me 10 years ago don't quit," he told her.
Foster promised her son she would not quit. She could just give it up and be a grandmother, she said, but it's not time for that yet. "I'm 57. I'm not ready to sit down yet."
Mike Beauman, 44, also worked in Atlanta and came to Washington for Northwest when that facility was shut down. Beauman's move had a silver lining because his three children lived here with their mother. He moved to Laurel and often had a chance to see his children, ages 13, 14 and 16.
"But without this job, I'm not sure I'm able to afford this area. I have no money put away because it's so expensive here," he said.
"We all knew it was coming, but I was always holding out hope," he said, shaking his head. "I should have been looking for work."
Smith also is planning to leave the area. He will give up his basement apartment and return to his farm. But he'll be back to walk the picket line and stay with friends.
The strike, he expects, will "be a long, drawn-out thing."
Staff writer Sara Kehaulani Goo contributed to this report.