Northwest's Duluth, Minn. Mechanics Fear Sale

In a statement issued Monday morning, Northwest mechanics suggested Airbus, the French company that manufactures the airplanes they service, may be working to cut a deal with Northwest.

The airline, which has lost about $2.5 billion on its operations in the past four years, has been pushing its mechanics and other employees for $1.1 billion in annual wage and other givebacks.

Meanwhile, Northwest, like other major carriers, has been tapping outside companies to handle more and more of its plane maintenance.

The relationship between Northwest and its mechanics has grown increasingly bitter.

State senators representing Duluth in St. Paul said they are concerned and would be angered if the number of workers at Northwest's Duluth maintenance base were decreased.

Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said he has a Wednesday dinner meeting scheduled with Northwest officials but was unsure what the precise topic would be. Bakk's Senate district includes the maintenance base.

"What's important is making sure we have a work force that's employed there," Bakk said. He said he was encouraged Northwest was at least talking to state lawmakers. He also expressed worry that the airline could be on the verge of bankruptcy, which could be a disaster for workers not only at the maintenance base but at all Northwest facilities statewide, including a reservation center on the Iron Range.

"We have to be sensitive of their concerns and cognizant of the fact that bankruptcy is not an option," Bakk said.

Sen. Yvonne Prettner Solon, DFL-Duluth, said she had not been invited to the dinner meeting and would be outraged by any plan that conflicts with agreements Northwest made with the city and the state. Prettner Solon said she was advised Oberstar's office was trying quietly to cut a deal with Northwest aimed at protecting Northland jobs.

"But we saw this coming a year ago," she said. Any arrangement with Airbus that reduced employment numbers for Duluth-area workers would be unacceptable, she said.

"At the least it would be a violation of the intention of the law," Prettner Solon said. "The reason Duluth put the money into that facility was to provide jobs for Duluth workers."

Prettner Solon was president of the Duluth City Council and the Duluth Economic Development Authority when the deal between Northwest and the city was made.

In return for city money, the airline pledged its Duluth base would employ at least 350 people.

Duluth Mayor Herb Bergson previously estimated payments on those bonds annually cost Duluth about $850,000. However, Bergson did not respond to the News Tribune's request for comment on the situation Monday.

Anderson said the work force at Duluth's base recognizes the stakes in play should Northwest hand over the facility to another company.

"We have 272 lives hanging on the edge," Anderson said. "We workers deserve a seat at the table."

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