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Little progress made as Northwest, mechanics approach strike deadline

Saturday, August 20, 2005

MINNEAPOLIS -- Northwest Airlines and its mechanics rolled toward a strike Friday, with no evidence that progress was being made in negotiations with federal mediators.

By Friday afternoon, the two sides had gone all day without a joint session, said Jim Young, a union negotiator at the site of talks in Washington, D.C. He declined to comment further on the talks.

A strike could begin at 12:01 a.m. EDT Saturday. Northwest has vowed to keep flying if there's a strike. It has lined up 1,900 temporary workers, vendors, and managers, including hundreds of licensed mechanics, to take over if necessary.

Northwest, which says it is losing about $4 million a day, wants its mechanics, cleaners and custodians to take a 25 percent pay cut. It also wants the right to lay off another 2,000 so it can send more of their work to outside vendors. Northwest has already slashed their ranks from 8,390 in 2002 to 4,427 now.

'Last, best' offer

Northwest has said it needs $176 million worth of savings from mechanics as part of $1.1 billion in annual savings from all its employees. It said it made its "last, best" offer on Thursday night, though it wouldn't give details. The Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association said the offer wasn't good enough.

"I'm absolutely convinced that the proposal that they made last night moved inches, where yards need to be advanced," said AMFA Assistant National Director Steve MacFarlane on Friday.

Northwest, the nation's fourth-largest airline, and its regional carriers operate more than 1,500 flights to 750 cities. It has hubs in Detroit, Minneapolis, Memphis, Tokyo, and Amsterdam. It employs about 40,000 people, including 4,427 in the mechanic's union.

'Seriously' disruptful

Mechanics union leaders have predicted that a strike will seriously disrupt the airline.

A huge question for both sides was whether other Northwest unions would cross a mechanics picket line. Only the flight attendants appeared to be seriously considering a sympathy strike -- and Northwest said it had replacement workers for some of them, too. A flight attendant vote on whether to strike was scheduled to end one minute before the mechanic strike deadline.

Ground workers and pilots didn't say whether they would honor a picket line, but they had been considered unlikely to. They said they would announce their position after a mechanic's strike begins.

On Friday afternoon, a federal judge barred mechanics at Northwest regional carrier Mesaba Airlines from staging a sympathy strike. Those mechanics are represented by the same AMFA locals that represent Northwest mechanics at hubs in Minneapolis, Detroit and Memphis.

"The effects of a disruption in Mesaba's operations would be felt in thirty-three states and three Canadian provinces," Judge David S. Doty wrote. "Twenty-one cities and towns where Mesaba is the lone scheduled airline stand to lose all commercial air service. Thus the public interest favors issuance of the order."

On Thursday, the union local that represents 2,700 Northwest ground workers in Detroit said it would not honor a mechanic picket line.

Poor relations

Relations between the two unions have been poor. The Machinists used to represent nearly all Northwest ground workers, including mechanics. But in 1998, the mechanics, custodians and cleaners voted to break away and join AMFA.

A mechanics strike at Northwest would be the first major airline strike since Northwest pilots grounded the airline for 20 days in 1998. AMFA has struck only four times in its history, most recently in 1980.

Shares of Northwest fell 10 cents to close at $5.38 in afternoon trading on the Nasdaq Stock Market. The stock had surged 10 percent on Thursday after investor Philip B. Korsant disclosed he had bought a 6 percent stake in the company. The stock had gained 38 percent since Monday.


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