NWA Pilots Line Up Strike Funding

In a move that comes a week after Northwest Airlines said a strike would likely kill it, its pilots said Thursday that they'll soon have up to $10 million to spend on strike preparations.

The national union for Northwest Airlines' pilots says it will give them the money.

"We do not want to strike,'' said Mark McClain, leader of the Northwest pilots union, in a prepared statement. "We want to reach a fair consensual agreement with NWA management. Unfortunately, Northwest management is forcing our hand so we must be ready for all possibilities."

Operating in bankruptcy, Eagan-based Northwest is looking to cut its annual labor costs by $1.4 billion. It imposed a contract last year on striking mechanics. Next week, some 14,500 ground workers are scheduled to vote on a proposed deal with Northwest — and decide if they want to strike if they reject it.

The grant from the Air Line Pilots Association's executive council will be used to plan a possible strike, increase union communications and fund rallies and other activities.

"It's saber-rattling time and they'll play this out to the end,'' said John Remington, a professor of industrial relations at the University of Minnesota. "We'll see who blinks first."

As far as he recalls, Remington said ALPA did not make similar strike funding commitments for pilots at United Airlines, US Airways or other carriers as they reached recent showdowns with management.

Northwest pilots have been threatening to strike if the airline doesn't back off its cost-cutting proposals, especially its plan to outsource flying to what would be a new subsidiary. The union figures outsourcing could cost more than 1,000 pilots their jobs. But Northwest has said the new airline would create hundreds of jobs for pilots who would otherwise not have work.

The union also has threatened to strike if the judge overseeing Northwest's bankruptcy imposes a contract on the union. Northwest has argued pilots could not legally strike under a court-imposed contract.

Northwest and the unions for its pilots and flight attendants are in the midst of a court hearing to consider the airline's request to reject the unions' contracts. Bankruptcy Judge Allan Gropper is pressing both sides to reach negotiated settlements.

In a statement, the airline reiterated Thursday that it doesn't believe a strike "would be in the best interest of the airline, its employees, our customers or the communities we serve."

But Northwest pilots say they have already taken a 39 percent pay cut, agreed to higher medical costs, and saved Northwest hundreds of millions of dollars annually by agreeing to a pension plan freeze.

The airline's current proposals for jobs, wages, working conditions and benefits would set "new lows for pilots" among Northwest and its peers, the union says.

The union figures Gropper will face a Feb. 16 deadline for ruling on Northwest's contract rejection request, unless the union and airline agree to extend that deadline.

Martin J. Moylan can be reached at 651-228-5479 or mmoylan@pioneerpress.com.

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