Northwest Begins Baggage Handler Talks

MINNEAPOLIS_Northwest Airlines Corp. and its baggage handlers resumed talks on Monday, under the threat of a trial next week that could result in the bankrupt carrier rejecting that union contract altogether.

About 5,600 baggage handlers represented by the International Association of Machinists voted down Northwest's proposed 11.5 percent pay cuts and work-rule changes.

Unless they make a deal, a bankruptcy court trial is set to begin May 15 to decide whether Northwest can impose its terms on the baggage handlers and flight simulator operators, who also rejected a contract offer.

Northwest said Monday that it would rather make a deal, "but the airline will take whatever actions are required to ensure that the necessary labor cost reductions are achieved as expeditiously as possible."

The National Mediation Board brought the two sides together for the talks, which were being held in Minneapolis.

Northwest has nearly secured the $1.4 billion in annual labor savings it wants from all its workers. It has permanent agreements with all its other unions. Members of the Professional Flight Attendants Association began voting on Sunday on a wage-cutting contract. That balloting ends June 6.

More major votes are on the way for PFAA, where membership discontent has been growing.

The union announced late Friday that it would "affiliate" with the Transport Workers Union if PFAA members approve. PFAA vice president Doug Moe said the union would then become Local 787 of the TWU, which also represents flight attendants at Southwest Airlines Inc.

Moe said joining the TWU makes sense because Northwest flight attendants would benefit from being part of a larger organization. The PFAA represents only Northwest's roughly 9,600 flight attendants.

Moe said ties have been growing between the two unions. The Northwest union used a TWU office in New York for pay-cut negotiations earlier this year, and the TWU paid for an expert used by both unions during negotiations, he said.

But some PFAA members have also signed cards asking for a vote on switching to the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents flight attendants at 20 airlines. Federal union regulators have not yet approved the vote.

The PFAA is itself the product of a union switch. It began representing Northwest flight attendants after they voted to leave the Teamsters in 2003.