2 NWA Unions Watch, Wait, Wait

One union has been a vocal critic of Northwest Airlines' ability to fly through a strike by its mechanics, even questioning whether its planes are safe.

The other union has been reaping some benefits, including recapturing some work it lost when mechanics — which comprised a third of its members — broke away seven years ago.

Despite their different approaches, the unions representing flight attendants and ground workers at Northwest have one thing common: a huge stake in the outcome of the mechanics' strike.

The two unions represent more than 24,000 of Northwest's 39,000 workers. They, too, are in tough contract talks with Northwest, which wants annual cuts totaling $250 million from the two groups as part of its hunt for $1.1 billion in overall annual labor cost cuts.

If it doesn't succeed, the airline has warned it could face a bankruptcy filing, which would create even more uncertainty for a company that provides the bulk of air service in the Twin Cities and employs some 15,000 in Minnesota.

Northwest spent 18 months refining its bold plan to operate through a strike by members of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association. It recruited and trained replacement mechanics and a pool of potential flight attendants in case of a sympathy strike.

The exhaustive preparations indicate that Northwest won't back down from its demands.

"If Northwest gets away with playing hardball negotiation and forcing strikes and replacing people, it's a bad day in history for labor," said Guy Meek, president of the Professional Flight Attendants Association, which represents some 9,700 workers at Northwest.

Bad day or not, other unions at Northwest — including flight attendants — have decided to cross picket lines and report to work, which has been key to the airline's ability to keep flying.

Support has had to come in other ways, and most of it has come from flight attendants.

At Saturday's mechanics union rally in Bloomington, flight attendants in uniform turned out in force. They've started a food bank to assist striking families. And a small number of flight attendants have refused to cross the picket lines, either by rearranging their schedules to delay their workdays or refusing to show up. When they are not working, many of them have joined strikers on the picket line.

Still others have been outspoken about safety concerns since the temporary mechanics started work. The Federal Aviation Administration, which has deployed additional inspectors at Northwest, says the carrier is safe.

The International Association of Machinists, which represents some 15,000 Northwest baggage handlers, customer service agents and other workers, has been focused on picking up work that had been performed by striking mechanics union members.

They've been pushing back Northwest planes from gates at additional airports and cleaning planes.

The rift started when the mechanics voted to break from the IAM in 1998. Generally unions don't poach workers from other unions. Bad feelings grew when union officials for the ground workers accused the negotiators for mechanics of trying to cut a deal that would have resulted in a smaller hit for them and deeper cuts for other unions.

When the mechanics turned to the IAM for support during a strike, the IAM shot back that it wouldn't be "duped."

"You tried to insult us by calling us bag smashers, low-lifes, ramp apes and knuckle draggers," IAM district president Bobby De Pace said in a letter that recalled the exit of mechanics seven years ago.

That letter warned: "I hope you and your membership are prepared to practice what you have preached. Stand alone."

That was what the Eagan-based carrier was betting on. Northwest wanted to restructure their labor relations and viewed the mechanics as a first target for isolation. "They chose AMFA with calculation," said Harley Shaiken, a labor expert with the University of California, Berkeley.

An investment in replacement workers and outside expansive relationships with third-party vendors were designed to not just restructure what the mechanics do, but to send a powerful message to flight attendants, cleaners, baggage handlers and pilots that "this is not business as usual," Shaiken said.

Mediated talks between Northwest and its flight attendants union are scheduled to resume Tuesday — their first talks since the mechanics strike began.

Northwest wants $143 million in annual cuts from flight attendants, and a few weeks ago presented the union with a proposal on how to achieve that. The union has not countered.

Flight attendant pay ranges from $20,000 to $48,000 a year. Under Northwest's proposal, flight attendants would take an average hourly pay cut of 20 percent. In addition, half of the international flying would be outsourced. The resulting loss: "a mass majority of our jobs," Meek said.

If Northwest can effectively replace its mechanics, then the flight attendants need to worry — especially since the company has shown that it will replace them. "I think the flight attendants, like the mechanics, are going to have their backs up against the wall," said Rick Ross, an attorney with Fredrikson & Byron in Minneapolis who represents management on labor and employment issues.

Northwest declined to discuss details of the union proposals. A further complication is the pressure of rising fuel prices, which the airline has acknowledged could drive the $1.1 billion labor-cuts target up.

In each case, Northwest presents a road map of how to get to there. "We've said there is a menu of ways that they can achieve those reductions," said Kurt Ebenhoch, a Northwest spokesman.

The ground workers also face negotiations. But the union hasn't agreed yet that $107 million — the amount Northwest says it needs — is an appropriate amount. De Pace maintains the target is too high.

De Pace said work rules — which include things like sick leave and lunch breaks — may be one target for Northwest. Northwest's ground workers have the best work rules in the industry. Rules at rivals have eroded through bankruptcies and concessions.

The same isn't true for pay. "When it comes to wages," he said, "we are right there."

Julie Forster can be reached at jforster@pioneerpress.com or 651-228-5189.

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