Striking Mechanics Walk Away From Talks With Northwest

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Striking mechanics at Northwest Airlines Corp. walked away from talks on Sunday, refusing to say if they would return to the bargaining table before a Tuesday deadline for when Northwest says it will start hiring permanent replacements.

Union officials said they had agreed to the airline's demand for wage concessions and layoffs, but could not agree on severance packages and work rules, so they abandoned efforts to negotiate a proposal that they could put to members for a vote.

The strike has become a fight of principle for many union members, so they won't bow to Northwest's threat to replace them, Steve MacFarlane, assistant national director of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, said Sunday.

''The thought of being replaced by a bunch of scabs is not a scary thing,'' he said.

Northwest spokesman Kurt Ebenhoch said the National Mediation Board informed the airline that the union had ''discontinued negotiations.''

''We remain available and willing to return to the table,'' Ebenhoch said. He declined further comment.

When reached by phone, AMFA negotiations spokesman Jeff Mathews said, ''There's no negotiations scheduled at this time.'' He refused to elaborate.

Later Sunday, Northwest issued a statement reiterating that it will begin hiring permanent replacements for the striking AMFA members beginning Tuesday.

The carrier has kept flying through the strike that began on Aug. 20. The negotiations had restarted on Thursday after the airline threatened to begin hiring permanent replacement workers on Tuesday if no deal was reached.

The union says Northwest wants to keep only 1,080 mechanics' jobs and eliminate the aircraft cleaner and custodian positions represented by the union. It says that would mean eliminating 3,181 positions that existed before the strike. About 200 of the remaining mechanics' jobs would be in Duluth, with the rest split between Minneapolis and Detroit.

Northwest's proposal would save it $203 million a year, up from the $176 million it sought before the strike began Aug. 20. Mechanics made their own proposal on Saturday.

''Their first proposal was bad; their second was horrendous,'' MacFarlane said of the airline's offers.

In an update to AMFA members Sunday, Mathews said the negotiating committee agreed to Northwest's targets on layoffs and pay cuts, but the sticking point was severance packages for the workers who will be laid off. AMFA asked for 20 weeks of severance pay, but the company refused to pay more than 16 weeks, Mathews said. The update also said Northwest insisted on new language that would create ''intolerable'' work conditions, but didn't give specifics.

In its statement, Northwest said it was disappointed that the union leadership had broken off the talks and was not putting the airline's latest proposal to a vote by rank-and-file members. The airline noted that its severance proposal would have allowed laid-off employees to receive paychecks through the end of the year.

Marc Drysdale, a Northwest mechanic for 21 years, called Northwest's offers ''totally unacceptable,'' and said he was happy with AMFA's handling of the negotiations.

''What they're asking for is so unrealistic, I have to get a second job just to make ends meet,'' he said.

Northwest is seeking $1.4 billion in annual labor cost savings from all its workers, up from the $1.1 billion it was seeking before the strike, saying rising fuel prices forced it to raise the target. It is in talks with all of its unions.

Northwest has said time is running out for it to avoid bankruptcy. Oct. 16 is the last day before a new, more restrictive bankruptcy law takes effect, and CEO Doug Steenland has acknowledged that the law change is one factor in the company's bankruptcy considerations.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press