NWA Talks Bring Union Clashes

The rift is widening between the mechanics union at Northwest Airlines and the union representing the baggage handlers and other ground workers -- a group that the carrier hopes to tap to perform some jobs now handled by mechanics in the event the mechanics go on strike.

The International Association of Machinists, which represents the baggage handlers and ground workers, told its members in an online posting Friday that negotiators for the mechanics union have proposed wage and benefit cuts that would in effect more than double the cuts that Northwest is seeking from ground workers. At the same time, the proposal would reduce cuts for the mechanics, the group claims.

Bobby De Pace, president of District 143 of the IAM, said he was told of the mechanics' proposal by the airline. "Naturally, I flipped out," he said.

Jim Young, negotiating chairman for the mechanics union, the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, said his group never suggested specific cuts for other unions. "What we did state to the company was that we felt that the concessions they were asking for (from AMFA) were disproportionate to what they were asking from other groups on the property." The worsening relations come as the mechanics union tries to rally the support of other Northwest labor groups as a strike deadline looms. Next week, it plans a rally of all Northwest unions on the state Capitol steps to show a united front against what it calls union-busting tactics.

Northwest has pledged to operate a full schedule of flights even if its unionized mechanics are off the job after the current 30-day "cooling off" period ends Aug. 19. It has hired replacement workers and spent millions to train them.

Also part of the airline's contingency plan: tapping some ground workers to tow and clean planes, work that is now done by AMFA members.

De Pace said the union has not decided whether its members will pick up some of the work of the mechanics, or if it will honor picket lines.

"I'm not going to start a riot if I don't have to," he said. "I believe that Northwest and AMFA are going to come to terms. We're not going to get involved or interfere with anybody's negotiations."

"I would hope any good union man or woman would never consider doing struck work," AMFA's Young said.

The two unions have a tense history. Northwest's mechanics were represented by the IAM until 1998, when the upstart AMFA won them over. At the time, the mechanics were 9,000-plus strong, accounting for about a third of the IAM's membership. Generally, unions don't recruit members from other unions.

To remain competitive in an industry that can't raise prices amid record high fuel costs, Eagan-based Northwest is seeking wage and benefit cuts totaling $1.1 billion from its workers. It is seeking $176 million in annual wage and benefit cuts from 4,900 mechanics and cleaners, and $107 million from the 15,000 generally lower-paid ground workers.

De Pace said the proposal by mechanics union negotiators, which he said was made in July, would boost his group's cuts to $256 million. He said his union thinks Northwest's original request is too high.

AMFA, meanwhile, claims it never got to specifics with Northwest. "We never told the company they have to go to the IAM and take another dollar," Young said.

Also Friday, a federal judge threw out a complaint by Northwest's flight attendants union, which said Northwest was improperly training their replacements in case they strike or honor mechanics' picket lines. The judge said the dispute over training should be settled by arbitrators. A union spokesman said the group will pursue expedited arbitration.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press