Bush Appears to Follow NWA Management's Lead

What a difference four years can make.

On Wednesday, White House spokesman Scott McClellan indicated President Bush would not intervene in the dispute between Northwest Airlines and the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, the union representing the airline's mechanics.

That position represents a 180-degree swing from the president's view four years ago.

Here's how McClellan put it on Wednesday, the same day the National Mediation Board declared an impasse in negotiations between Northwest and the mechanics union:

"The National Mediation Board has found that a labor action at Northwest would not present a substantial disruption of interstate commerce," McClellan told the Associated Press. "The administration does not dispute this conclusion based on current information and the president is not creating a presidential emergency board."

Contrast that with the president's view on Feb. 9, 2001. Then, just as this Wednesday, the mediation board declared talks between the airline and the mechanics at an impasse.

Then, as now, the board's declaration triggered a 30-day countdown to a strike.

But then, unlike now, the White House said Bush was prepared to get involved in the dispute by naming a panel to seek a settlement. "The president is concerned about an airline strike that could threaten the economy," a White House aide said then.

Bush did get involved in 2001. Both sides got back to the bargaining table. By May, they had hammered out an agreement.

White House spokesman Allen Abney, asked Friday about the AP report, confirmed it.

The situation differs from four years ago, Abney said, because this time neither side wants Bush to intervene. Then, the mechanics union opposed intervention, while indications were that Northwest wanted the White House to get involved.

Both times, the Bush position has reflected the view of Northwest's management. It's just that this time, management's view has changed.

This time, Northwest is preparing to take a strike.

"It's a significant difference, but it's not very surprising given how much has changed in four years," says John Budd, an industrial relations professor at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management.

What's changed, Budd says, is that there now is a sense that the industry has too much capacity. Viewed from that perspective, he explains, a strike now would not be as disruptive to Northwest or to the industry as would have been the case in mid-2001.

Also, Budd says Northwest's management has a stronger bargaining position today than four years ago because it has outsourced so many of the mechanics' jobs.

Doug Steenland, the airline's CEO, is blunt about the changes.

"If we can't reach an agreement, we cannot jeopardize the thousands of other good jobs that exist at Northwest," he said in an e-mail to employees Monday. "That would be irresponsible. Therefore, we have put together a carefully designed plan that prepares us for the possibility of an AMFA work stoppage."

Steenland went on to say that qualified Northwest managers and others from beyond the company "are prepared to assume the key aircraft-maintenance duties performed by AMFA."

"We have every confidence that this plan will work and work well enabling us to fly our full published schedule in any event."

Eagan-based Northwest argues that it has no choice but to hang tough because times have gotten terribly difficult for the big airlines.

In particular, the management cites three factors: rising fuel and pension costs and competition from low-fare rivals. Bankrupt airlines and discount carriers have made it impossible for Northwest to recover the higher costs by raising its fares.

Since 2000, the company has cut some 4,400 mechanics and cleaners, who also are represented by AMFA. Much of this has been done through outsourcing. The union fears that the airline will farm out still more jobs in the months ahead.

The management wants $176 million in concessions from AMFA, which has countered with a plan it says will save the airline $143 million. The airline puts the value of the union plan at $87 million, tops.

Northwest warns that if it can't get these concessions plus givebacks from other unions for a grand total of $1.1 billion, it faces bankruptcy an option that could deal its workers an even bigger financial blow.

The company argues that its proposals are essential for survival. But for many of the union's members, this is a pill too bitter to swallow.

The White House could change its mind and get involved, but Northwest has close ties to the Bush administration. If the management wants the White House to stay out of this dispute, it may well get its way.

So as the long warm summer soldiers on, the heat continues to rise in a simmering dispute now on a collision course. This drama isn't likely to make for pleasant viewing.