Ground Workers Press Northwest to Return to Table

Northwest Airlines has not held a negotiating session with the ground workers union since its baggage handlers soundly rejected a contract offer more than six weeks ago.

"We want the company to come to the table and bargain in good faith," Ken Hooker, a local union leader, said Thursday shortly before employees started picketing at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

Northwest wants $190 million in annual labor savings from the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM).

In early March, the union's customer service agents, clerical workers and reservation agents approved a contract offer that includes 11.5 percent pay cuts. But the IAM's equipment service employees and stock clerks turned down the proposal on a 60 percent vote.

Bobby DePace, president of IAM District 143, said union leaders want to craft a proposal that is "more palatable" to the employees affected by the contract rejection.

But in an update to union members, DePace said on the union's website: "We're still waiting to hear from Northwest."

An airline spokesman declined to comment Thursday on the lack of bargaining with the IAM. On March 7, the day Northwest's proposal was rejected, the airline said that it would ask the bankruptcy judge presiding over its case to void the current IAM contract and allow Northwest to impose new pay cuts and work rules.

That hearing is set for May 15. The IAM represents 13,369 Northwest employees; 5,632 would be affected if the current contract is abrogated.

IAM workers picketed Thursday to send a message to Northwest.

"People voted this thing down, because there was nothing there," said Hooker, president of Bloomington-based IAM Local 1833. In addition to pay and job cuts, Hooker said, "They are taking work rules and benefits that we've negotiated on this property for over 60 years and using the bankruptcy courts to decimate the contracts."

Hooker said IAM workers plan to picket the next two Thursdays. "Enough is enough," Hooker said, adding that it's time to negotiate a contract that employees can ratify.

IAM members have given union leaders the authorization to call a strike.

Northwest pilots are voting on a concessionary contract through May 3. Flight attendants will vote on their tentative agreement from May 7 to June 6.

In a Monday message to employees, Northwest CEO Doug Steenland pointed toward the price of oil - above $70 a barrel - in stressing the importance of reducing labor costs by $1.4 billion.

"Without a competitive cost structure, we will not be in a position to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection," Steenland said.

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