T o supporters, he is a farsighted labor leader, tenacious and giving.
To detractors, he is an elitist and a huckster, obsessed with a dream.
O.V. Delle-Femine is the man guiding the maverick Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association in its bitter showdown with Northwest Airlines. Mr. Delle-Femine (dell-FEM-i-nee) co-founded the union more than 40 years ago and has shepherded its growth to 15,000 workers at eight airlines.
At 72, the short, bespectacled bullet of a man has lived and breathed AMFA’s hard-line philosophy for decades.
Now, he is leading 4,400 Northwest workers in a strike that some say could put them out of work for good and that others see as the last stand for a craft under siege.
Speaking by phone Thursday evening from Washington, where AMFA and Northwest negotiators were hunkered down all week in the National Mediation Board building, a frustrated Mr. Delle-Femine called the negotiations “a ruse.”
“What they really want to do is file for bankruptcy to terminate the pension plans of the employees. Now they’re going to blame our mechanics and say they caused it,” Mr. Delle-Femine said. “They just want to destroy the union.”
Mr. Delle-Femine’s job is one few would want right now.
AMFA is all but isolated from other unions, whose support it could sorely use. That is largely because AMFA was built by raiding members from other unions — the No. 1 sin in labor land, said John Budd, a labor-relations analyst at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. AMFA remains outside the powerful AFL-CIO union umbrella. Its leaders insist that they go nowhere they aren’t invited.
The union is working in the worst of industry environments, battling a seemingly inexorable trend toward outsourcing airplane maintenance to third parties. For the first time in its history, AMFA gave in to concessions, signing a contract in May with bankrupt United Airlines to give it $96 million in pay cuts and other givebacks. The union had a gun to its head, Mr. Delle-Femine explained, and risked much worse before a bankruptcy judge.
AMFA is now cornered into negotiating not for raises or better benefits, but to keep nearly half its Northwest work force from being fired.
“This is probably as bad as it gets for a union leader,” said Gary Chaison, an industrial relations specialist at Clark University in Massachusetts. “He’s in a fight with no allies.”
“Dell,” as everyone calls him, is no stranger to bad fights.
In 1962, he was a mechanic for American Airlines at New York’s La Guardia Airport when he and two friends became frustrated with the Transport Workers Union and broke away to start their own. In a throwback to the craft unions of the 19th century, they formed a union just for mechanics — an unusual move at a time when the U.S. labor model was big, centralized unions.
AMFA landed its first victory in 1964 at Ozark Airlines, and others followed. But for most of its life AMFA has been a fringe union, with Mr. Delle-Femine living out of his suitcase, sleeping in airports as he crisscrossed the country wooing prospects.
From 1986 to 1991, AMFA had no active members. Mr. Delle-Femine said he supported himself partly by buying some houses and converting them to rentals.
Friends say that at one point, they had to pass the hat to pay for his health insurance. He stuck as AMFA’s elected national leader mostly because he ran unopposed, friends said. They doubted anyone wanted the job.
“There have been times I think when Dell may have been the only guy out there that really still believed it could happen,” said Steve MacFarlane, AMFA’s assistant national director who has known him for 25 years.
Don’t ask what O.V. stands for. He hates the long Italian names and won’t tell anyone. His first marriage collapsed. His second wife, Marie, was the love of his life and stood by him through the worst, friends said.
It wasn’t until 1998, shortly after Marie died of cancer, that Mr. Delle-Femine hit the big leagues.
AMFA finally seduced members away from the powerful International Association of Machinists at Northwest Airlines with expectations of industry-leading contracts and big raises. Overnight, AMFA went from 1,000 members to 11,000.
Friends say he personifies tenacity.
“There are very few people in life that have a dream and against all odds just keep fighting. I don’t know how the man does it. Somebody should do a movie about this guy,” said Victor Remeneski, a retired Northwest mechanic in Atlanta and charter AMFA member.
AMFA rode its Northwest win to other major airlines, capturing ATA, Horizon, Southwest and United. Most dues stay with the local offices, but there is enough now to pay Mr. Delle-Femine $139,500 a year, members say.
AMFA has come a long way since it was bankrolled by Marie Delle-Femine’s job at a travel agency.
Analysts question whether AMFA’s independence, the source of its strength, now will hurt it.
To be sure, many of the AMFA’s 4,400 members at Northwest support Mr. Delle-Femine and the union’s hard-line position with the airline.
“We’re behind him all the way,” said Dave Blair, a Woodbury, Minn., electrician who has been with Northwest for 25 years. “I would say 90 to 95 percent of the guys are behind him.”
But not all.
AMFA member Jerry Sowells, for one, faults Mr. Delle-Femine for being too soft on farming out work to third parties and not delivering on pledges of no concessions.
“He’s truly a snake-oil salesman; he’s a huckster and a clown,” said Mr. Sowells, a Northwest mechanic in Eagan, Minn., who has been with the company 24 years.
“We’re going to be out on the street not knowing what we’re out for.”
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