AIRLINE STRIKE: NWA mechanics to vote on deal to end walkout

Northwest Airlines and its mechanics union appear ready to seal a deal that would end a nearly four-month-old strike against the Eagan-based airline.

A ratification vote on the deal is likely within several weeks, union officials said Monday.

The proposed agreement would give some 3,000 striking mechanics four weeks' pay, compensation for unused vacation time and limited job-recall rights.

Most important, Northwest would place the strikers on its layoff list and not contest their claims for unemployment benefits.

They could collect up to 26 weeks of benefits at half their regular pay, up to a maximum of $515 a week.

The agreement also would apply to some 1,100 custodians and cleaners, members of the same union, who walked off their jobs late on Aug. 19.

"This gives our striking members a say in their future," said Jeff Mathews, contract administrator for the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association.

"It's a question of salvaging the best deal that's left," said John Remington, a professor of industrial relations at the University of Minnesota.

Northwest spokesman Kurt Ebenhoch said the airline looks forward to a ratified agreement that would end the strike and "allow both parties to move forward."

Strikers want to end their battle with the airline, said Steve Ellis of Savage, a mechanic with Northwest for 15 years. He was laid off about a month before the strike.

"Folks are looking for closure," he said. "I wouldn't go back to work for them. I've moved along." The prospect of 26 weeks of unemployment benefits will be especially enticing to strikers who so far have nothing from the company, he said.

"They'd take it and leave," Ellis predicted. "I have a lot of good friends on strike, and they don't care to work for that company anymore. There's constant turmoil. And in the airline industry, there's always some kind of upheaval."

The four weeks' layoff pay would be at the reduced pay rates Northwest imposed after AMFA struck the airline.

As the union went on strike, Northwest imposed 26 percent pay cuts and brought in replacement workers to service its planes. It cut the top annual pay for mechanics from $72,000 to $55,000.

Under the proposed deal, the strikers would get far less than they could have had if they had accepted earlier Northwest offers.

Just before the strike, the airline proposed a deal that guaranteed 2,700 positions for the union, with up to 26 weeks of severance for laid-off workers.

In early September, Northwest offered jobs for 1,080 striking mechanics. By October, that offer was down to about 500 jobs, reflecting Northwest's progress in hiring permanent replacements and outsourcing most of the strikers' work.

Now it appears Northwest has no jobs open for strikers.

All custodian and cleaner jobs have been sent to outside companies or shifted to other unions. And Northwest says it will keep only 880 mechanics on its payroll, split between its Twin Cities and Detroit hubs.

Of the mechanics Northwest hired to permanently replace strikers, 480 were either striking union members who crossed picket lines or union mechanics who had been laid off before the strike.

Did AMFA lose?

"I don't think you can assess winners and losers," said Remington. "It's way too early because of the bankruptcy, and the three other unions that are still out there (without contract settlements). This brings AMFA back to the table, in front of the bankruptcy court and maintains them as the representative of the mechanics."

Northwest filed for bankruptcy Sept. 14.

Looking to cap its drive for $1.4 billion in annual labor savings, Northwest hopes to finalize big-time givebacks from its union pilots, flight attendants and ground workers by mid-January. If talks fail, the airline will ask the judge overseeing its bankruptcy to impose new contracts on those employee groups.

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