Northwest Mechanics Talk Tough

On the day when the National Mediation Board told Northwest Airlines and its mechanics union to keep talking, the mechanics provided a preview of things to come if the two sides can't reach agreement.

Their message Thursday: They can ground the Eagan-based carrier. So vowed Ted Ludwig, president of Local 33 of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association.

"I don't think they'll fly out of Minneapolis,'' he said during an airport press conference Thursday, as union members picketed and passed out leaflets to travelers. "I think we can shut the airline down completely."

Northwest, meanwhile, says it's making contingency plans that'll enable it to get customers to where they want to go even if the mechanics strike.

But despite all the tough talk, there won't be a strike very soon, though one could still occur this summer.

The mediation board said Thursday that a deadlock declaration is "not in order at this time," rejecting Northwest's bid to force the process along. Had the board declared an impasse, as Northwest claimed, a strike or management lockout of workers could have occurred after a 30-day cooling off period.

It's unclear when Northwest could or would file another request for an impasse declaration.

Northwest said Thursday that it looks forward to reaching an agreement with AMFA that provides wage and benefits that are "fair to employees and that will allow Northwest to be competitive with other airlines."

For more than two years, Northwest has been seeking about $1 billion in annual wage and other givebacks from employees. So far, it only has about $300 million in hand, mostly from the pilots union.

Northwest has lost about $3 billion on its operations since the start of 2001. Its mechanics can make $50,000 to $70,000 a year; cleaners, also part of AMFA, make $20,000 to $40,000.

Contract talks with the mechanics began last October. Ludwig said Northwest's push for wage cuts of about 25 percent, greater outsourcing of maintenance work and thousands more job cuts show the airline is intent on eliminating the union.

By next month, Northwest will have laid off some 4,400 mechanics and cleaners since the end of 2000. And the union says Northwest wants a contract that lets it cut another 2,000.

"We would be striking for our survival," Ludwig said. "I want the public to know that Northwest is pushing us to a strike."

The effectiveness of a mechanics' strike, if it does come to pass, would hinge largely on the support AMFA gets from other unions and whether Northwest can find qualified workers to do the everyday maintenance work needed to keep the fleet flying.

While Northwest has been recruiting replacement mechanics, many of those recruited wouldn't cross picket lines, Ludwig said.

"We don't believe there'll be a lot of replacement workers,'' he said. "We found a lot of the replacement workers are not willing to cross picket lines. They're laid-off union people."

And how about Northwest's other unions?

"Good union people don't cross picket lines,'' Ludwig said.

Leaders of the Professional Flight Attendants Association joined AMFA picketers Thursday. But the flight attendants' contract does not give them the right to refuse to cross picket lines. If they don't cross, they could lose their jobs.

"That's a decision each person will have to make,'' said Jeff Gardner, PFAA vice president.

The pilots union says it does not make decisions about supporting another union's strike until a strike occurs.

Yet the sympathy of the pilots for the mechanics may not be great.

Last month, Mark McClain, chairman of the master executive council of the Northwest Airlines Air Line Pilots Association, said it's time other Northwest unions "face reality" and join the pilots in agreeing to wage and other labor-cost concessions.

At the airport Thursday, AMFA members handed out hundreds of leaflets and bags of small pretzels to travelers the same pretzels Northwest no longer gives to passengers.

Passenger John Aguirre of St. Paul, who was headed to Hong Kong, said his sympathies are with the workers. "They get laid off if things go bad, but management doesn't," he said.

Harv Skjerven, a forester from Minocqua, Wis., is unsure about the odds for a strike. But it would be a major hassle for him.

"It would affect me quite a bit,'' he said. "In the summer, I fight fires out west," in Idaho and Montana. And no one provides more flights to those states from here than Northwest does.

Tom Sullivan, a former Minneapolitan now living in Los Angeles, doesn't think the mechanics can stop Northwest from flying, though he's in the mechanics' camp.

"I want safe aircraft,'' he said. "I hope it doesn't come to a strike. I don't know how long they can continue to operate with these huge losses. At some point, something has to give."