Northwest Flight Attendants Vote on Strike

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) -- Flight attendants at Northwest Airlines Corp. began voting on Tuesday on whether to strike later this month to support the company's mechanics.

Also Tuesday, the mechanics and the airline said their contract talks would resume Monday with a mediator. Talks broke off last week after mechanics accused the airline of failing to move from its demand for $176 million in concessions. Mechanics can strike after 12:01 a.m. EDT on Aug. 20.

Flight attendants and Northwest's other large unions have said they will wait until a strike begins to announce whether they will cross the mechanics' picket line. The flight attendants' strike vote doesn't end until one minute before the strike deadline.

It's not clear whether a sympathy strike by flight attendants would be legal.

''The PFAA agreement does not permit Northwest Airlines flight attendants to engage in a sympathy strike,'' the company said in a statement. ''Northwest Airlines expects its flight attendants to report for duty, as scheduled, regardless of the outcome of the company's negotiations with AMFA.''

Eagan-based Northwest has said it is training replacement flight attendants and mechanics.

PFAA warned flight attendants that Northwest can replace them if they support the mechanics' strike.

''PFAA believes NWA management's primary goal is to divide, conquer and bust all of the unions on the property. Now is the time for labor to stand together,'' it said in a message on its Web site.

About 250 mechanics and supporters from other unions rallied at the state capitol on Tuesday. But PFAA was the only other Northwest union there. And while PFAA's support gives mechanics a major boost, other unions at Northwest have had a notably tepid response.

Pilots have publicly called on the mechanics to take a pay cut. And the head of the ground workers union is accusing mechanics of trying to shift larger pay cuts onto the ground workers, an allegation the mechanics union strongly denies.

Northwest, the nation's fourth-largest airline, is seeking $1.1 billion in overall wage concessions from its workers, and has warned that it could seek bankruptcy if it doesn't get them.

Mechanics are banking on being able to shut the airline down, with or without help from the other unions, said Steve MacFarlane, assistant national director of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association.

Even if leaders at the other unions don't declare a sympathy strike, MacFarlane said many of their rank-and-file will refuse to work.

Relations between the mechanics union and the union that covers other ground workers are especially tense.

The International Association of Machinists used to cover nearly all Northwest ground workers. But in 1998 the mechanics, custodians and cleaners voted to leave the IAM to join AMFA. Mechanics are seen as a higher-skill, higher-paid worker than other IAM workers, and AMFA promised to play up those skills at the bargaining table.

IAM District 143 President Bobby De Pace hasn't forgotten.

''When they left, they called our ramp folks 'baggage smashers, knuckle draggers.' ... Now they want us to forget all of that,'' said De Pace.

The IAM is in its own talks with Northwest. If IAM workers refuse to cross a mechanics' picket line, it will be because it's a way to hurt Northwest, not because it helps mechanics, De Pace said. He said no decision has been made yet.

''I will do whatever is best for our membership. I can't worry about AMFA,'' he said.

MacFarlane said De Pace is just mad that mechanics left his union in 1998.

The pilots and flight attendants unions said they'll wait until a strike begins to announce whether they'll cross a mechanics' picket.

The Northwest pilots strike in 1998 grounded the airline for 20 days, so most workers didn't have to decide whether to cross a picket line. Pilots asked mechanics to keep working so the planes would be ready to fly when the strike ended, MacFarlane said.

The animosity between AMFA and other ground workers is no surprise, considering that AMFA snatched the mechanics away from the IAM, said John Budd, a labor relations professor at the University of Minnesota who has followed Northwest's labor trials.

Ted Ludwig, president of the AMFA unit that represents Northwest mechanics in Minneapolis, said the lack of solidarity isn't AMFA's fault.

''We've reached out many times to the other unions,'' he said. ''Building solidarity, it takes two to have solidarity.''

Copyright 2005 Associated Press