Northwest, Mechanics Consider Strike

July 20, 2005

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Government mediators released Northwest Airlines and its mechanics from contract negotiations on Wednesday, triggering a 30 day cooling off period that could lead to a strike if the two parties fail to agree on a cost savings plan.

The White House, which has the authority to temporarily block a work stoppage, said it was keeping a close eye on the contract dispute.

The Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association said its members, which include mechanics, cleaners and custodians, could legally strike at any time after 12:01 a.m. EDT on August 20.

"Northwest executives gambled recklessly from the start, by dismissing the whole negotiating process and wasting the NMB's and our time," AMFA National Director O.V. Delle-Femine said in a statement.

"By refusing to budge from their unreasonable initial offer, they made a consensual agreement impossible and forced the process toward a strike," he said.

Northwest Chief Executive Doug Steenland said the airline had made contingency plans to keep flying in the event of a strike.

The National Mediation Board had been mediating contentious contract negotiations between Northwest and its mechanics union. But both sides requested release from mediation, claiming the negotiations were unproductive.

The mechanics have authorized their union leader to call a strike, saying the carrier is demanding unreasonable concessions from the workers.

Northwest, which is facing possible bankruptcy, is seeking USD$1.1 billion in annual concessions from its unions. The carrier has asked AMFA members to provide USD$176 million of that total.

Northwest said in a statement that the two parties will continue talks during the cooling-off period, adding that it sought an end to mediation so that a deadline could be established.

"I think it'll go the full 15 rounds," airline consultant Robert Mann said. "It's pretty clear there is a complete disconnect between the two sides."

He said a deadline for negotiations could add a new sense of urgency that could motivate both sides. But he said he believes the mechanics are willing to strike if they deem it necessary.

If the union members stop work, it will be the first airline strike since 2001 when pilots at Delta Air Lines subsidiary Comair stopped work for three months. Northwest saw its last strike in 1998.

The airline has said it does not expect the Bush administration to intervene to block any work stoppage. Federal law allows presidential intervention in an airline strike or lockout on the grounds that a strike would harm the economy.

President George W Bush blocked a threatened mechanics walkout at Northwest in 2001, and the two sides eventually reached an agreement.

Northwest said it still aims to reach a consensual agreement with its mechanics, but the carrier is bracing for a possible strike.

Steenland said on Tuesday that Northwest has replacement workers ready to take over if necessary. Steenland described them as "reputable brand name" mechanics who do similar work for other airlines.

"In preparation for any possible job action, the airline has developed comprehensive contingency plans, including expanded vendor relationships and the augmentation of airline staff," said Andrew Roberts, Northwest's executive vice president in charge of operations, in a statement.

But AMFA's Delle-Femine argued that replacement workers would be unprepared to handle the heavy traffic at Northwest's hub airports.

"Replacement mechanics would have to keep up with this high volume while learning from scratch how to work in this totally unfamiliar environment," he said. "They won't even know where the tools are."

(Reuters)