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Doris Kearns Goodwin: Targeted For Criticism By Northwest's Mechanics' Union

'Politics ain't beanbag" was the fictional Mr. Dooley's cryptic aphorism, meaning that politics is rarely played by Marquis of Queensberry rules. And labor politics can be especially sharp-elbowed; witness a campaign being launched by the striking Northwest Airlines mechanics' union to harass and discredit the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Northwest board member Doris Kearns Goodwin.

The Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association has been striking Northwest since August, without apparent result. The Minneapolis-based airline is operating more or less normally with replacement workers, and keeps offering AMFA members fewer and fewer incentives to return to work. It seems worth mentioning that AMFA is no darling of the labor movement. The Wall Street Journal has called it an "outlier" union disliked for its "reluctance to work with other unions and its practice of organizing workers who already belong to other unions."

Three weeks ago AMFA hired Ray Rogers's Corporate Campaign to conduct what I would call a guerilla marketing campaign aimed at publicizing the strike and embarrassing Northwest executives. Rogers, a veteran labor agitator he is the subject of an appreciative if not admiring Harvard Business School case study is the son of a lathe operator who worked at the General Electric plant in Lynn. The greatest feather in his cap was the successful unionization of textile manufacturer J.P. Stevens in 1980, glossified in the movie "Norma Rae."

Rogers's m.o. is to attack his corporate opponents indirectly. Against Stevens, for instance, he jawboned organized labor into pressuring the company's bank and insurance company to influence Stevens. "We personalize the campaign," Rogers says. "When we saw that Goodwin was going out on a national book tour" she begins promoting "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln" next week "we decided to move immediately on her. Eventually we will target every Northwest board member and top executive."

Rogers says he has printed 100,000 copies of a leaflet titled "The Great Emancipator Meets a Great Prevaricator," which revisits embarrassing episodes of alleged copying that bedeviled Goodwin in 2002. Keith Anderson, the head of AMFA's Boston-based Local 2, says the union's 80 local members will hand out leaflets in Concord, where Goodwin lives, at the airport, and at Goodwin's promotional events. In a letter, AMFA national director O.V. Delle-Femine has informed Goodwin that "we intend to notify a great many interested parties . . . that you are unfit to serve on the Northwest board and should resign immediately."

Goodwin did not return my phone call. In a prepared statement, Northwest said that in her board work, Goodwin "has been instrumental in ensuring that employees receive accurate, consistent communication about Northwest strategy and its impact on them." In a second prepared statement, two directors, a retired pilot and a former executive of the International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers, condemned the AMFA attack as "totally misguided."

Goodwin landed her $25,000 a year gig on the Northwest board in 1997 as a friend of the airline's former cochairman, Somerville's own Al Checchi. In 1998, when Checchi was running for governor of California, Goodwin appeared in a controversial TV commercial for the campaign, saying in part: "Having written about Democratic leaders who lived in the past, it is a pleasure to speak on behalf of a new Democratic leader who shares their values." At the time, Goodwin was a commentator for public television's "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer." Lehrer told viewers that her partisan appearance was "inappropriate," and the ad was quickly pulled.