Northwest Airline's contract offer that would slash wages and benefits and eliminate thousands of jobs appears to have little chance of being ratified, striking mechanics said Saturday.
If the offer is rejected during an upcoming two-week voting period, the two-month strike will go on with the company continuing its march to permanently replace its union work force. If it's approved, the strike will end.
"They know no one in their right mind is going to vote for that," said Ed Hoover, a 16-year Northwest mechanic who was out on the picket line early Saturday morning. "Everybody back at strike headquarters is saying as long as they are keeping the scabs, they are not going to vote yes."
Members of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association who were interviewed Saturday were solidly against the company's offer, even though approval would end a labor dispute that has become increasingly bitter since mechanics, cleaners and custodians first walked off the job Aug. 19. The airline has since filed for bankruptcy protection.
During the ongoing dispute, Northwest urged union negotiators to put an offer to members for a vote. After the two sides met last week, union leaders decided to put to a vote a contract they described as containing no highlights. On Friday, the airline said it was pleased that union members would get a chance to vote on the offer.
"It's an insult," John Faust, 55, of Burnsville said of the pact.
After 23 years with Northwest, Faust, who was a maintenance inspector, is moving to Washington state at the end of the month for a job doing similar work for an aviation company he declined to name. "The contract offer shows a lack of respect for us," said Faust, who couldn't stomach the fact that someone with decades of seniority would work alongside replacement workers.
If union members approve the contract, laid-off mechanics could start receiving their four weeks of severance pay and unemployment pay.
"Whether they vote yes or no doesn't change the overall outcome at this point," said Harley Shaiken, a labor expert at the University of California at Berkeley. "The company holds the cards."
The airline is operating with outside maintenance firms and replacement workers representing a fraction of the workers it once had. "Overall, this represents the destruction of the union, not simply the defeat over a contract," Shaiken said.
Northwest has hired replacement workers for more than half of the 1,080 mechanics jobs the company plans to maintain. Thousands of jobs have been outsourced or eliminated. Under the company offer, up to 540 of the 4,100 jobs that union members held when they went on strike would be preserved. Striking mechanics also would retain recall rights five years for the jobs filled by replacement workers, if and when they decide to leave.
Many striking mechanics wanted the chance to vote on an offer and told union negotiators so. "Quite possibly this could be your last vote on this property and your opportunity to tell the company and the industry where you stand," said a message to union members from Jeff Mathews, the union's contract coordinator.
Joe Smith, 26, a custodian whose job was eliminated, knows what message he'll send. His vote will be no.
"That's just absurd," he said of the offer. Smith, of Woodbury, had worked as a Northwest custodian for five years and was making about $20 per hour.
When mechanic Mike Javine got his first look at the contract details Friday night, he couldn't believe what he was reading. "It was a jaw dropper," said Javine, 49, of Savage. He will vote no because he can't imagine working alongside, and training, nonunion replacement workers. "That's just not going to fly for me," he said.
Instead, he'll look for another job. "To be bitter about it is going to hurt me," he said. "I'll just have to let it go, find something else and not let it eat me up."
Striking mechanics at bankrupt Northwest Airlines Corp. will begin voting Friday on what the head of their union called "the worst contract in the history of airline labor."
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