Northwest Airlines Inc. is poised to start permanently hiring mechanics to replace its striking union mechanics today.
The move marks a turning point in this strike, now in its 25th day, as the airline settles into a leaner operation. At the same time, it diminishes the hopes of union mechanics to return to their jobs at Michigan's most important airline.
"Everyone on the picket line who thought they could be out of a job for good will be out of a job for good," said Harley Shaiken, a professor specializing in labor issues at the University of California at Berkeley.
No talks have held since the union left negotiations early Sunday morning.
In a letter to the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association on Monday, Northwest said, "As it stands now, no AMFA employees have the option to return to work via a negotiated agreement, and none of those whose jobs have been eliminated will receive any severance."
Union mechanics who are permanently replaced are technically not fired. But they may only return to their jobs as positions open, said Washington, D.C.-based labor attorney Ron Johnson.
The permanent change makes Northwest's union mechanics in Michigan eligible for unemployment payments for the first time since they went on strike Aug. 20.
Striking workers can receive a maximum $362 a week for up to 26 weeks, said Norm Isotalo, spokesman for the state's Unemployment Insurance Agency, once the state has verified their jobs have been permanently replaced.
Meanwhile, Bob Rose, president of AMFA Local 5, said after a meeting with UAW President Ron Gettelfinger, the union gave AMFA $880,000 to distribute to the 4,400 striking mechanics.
The support couldn't come at a better time.
Northwest spokesman Kurt Ebenhoch declined to say how long it would take to replace Northwest's union mechanics or how many replacement mechanics the airline would permanently hire.
In its last offer to AMFA, Northwest proposed keeping 1,080 mechanics in Detroit, Minneapolis and Duluth, Minn.
When the airline's mechanics went on strike, Northwest dispatched 350 managers and 1,200 replacement workers to fill in.
Union officials say their resolve is strong.
"Northwest has taken all the steps to assure our people stay strong," said Rose, whose local represents more than 900 striking mechanics and aircraft cleaners.
Those steps include hiring replacement workers and asking for $203 million in concessions in the last round of talks, $27 million more than the offer that prompted the strike.
But the permanency of Northwest's move today is the kind of event that leads workers to leave the picket line or even cross it, labor experts say.
Discouraging members from crossing the picket line has been a mantra in the union's messages to its members.
"The only way we can be defeated right now is if we defeat ourselves," said Rose, who said he plans to send that message at a local union meeting today.