After three days of negotiations between Northwest Airlines Inc. and its mechanics union, talks broke down Sunday over severance pay issues, prompting the union to leave the bargaining table with no deal and no talks scheduled.
Barring a last-minute settlement, Northwest plans to start hiring permanent replacement mechanics Tuesday.
That deadline, combined with the breakdown of negotiations, could further erode the union's momentum in the 3-week-old strike, labor experts say.
Northwest has been able to maintain its operations with few noticeable disruptions.
Meanwhile, Michigan's most important carrier faces the task of maintaining what some experts say is a successful but fragile operation with replacement workers.
With the threat of bankruptcy lingering, Northwest says it must extract even more concessions from its unions to avoid filing for Chapter 11 protection from creditors.
If the failed negotiations with the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association are any indication, that could be difficult.
In a note to members, AMFA negotiators said talks fell apart over severance pay for the more than 3,000 mechanics, custodians and plane cleaners who would lose their jobs under the airline's latest offer.
In all, the Eagan, Minn.-based airline asked the union to give up $203 million annually by eliminating 75% of its workforce -- a deal that asks for more than what the union rejected more than three weeks ago when it struck the nation's fourth-largest airline.
"Our first inclination was to pack our bags and depart for our home stations," wrote AMFA negotiator Jeff Mathews to members Sunday.
But AMFA met the airline's demand to eliminate 3,181 union jobs and keep 1,080 mechanics in Detroit, Minneapolis and Duluth, Minn. The talks, however, fell apart when Northwest wouldn't extend the period for severance pay from 16 weeks to 20 weeks, he said.
"Northwest was unwilling to offer a severance package that we felt met the very minimal level that was needed to adequately compensate those who would be denied a position," Mathews told members.
In the end, the gap between Northwest and AMFA on Sunday morning consisted of four weeks and unacceptable work rules that together amounted to $10 million, AMFA said.
Northwest, with more than 900 striking mechanics at Detroit Metro Airport in Romulus, said its severance package offered as much as the company would pay to any contract employee.
"The company had hoped that AMFA membership would have had the opportunity to vote on the airline's latest proposal," Northwest said in a statement Sunday.
To striking mechanic Ruben Sosa, severance was the most important issue in these talks, and 16 weeks of it would have been a tough call.
"It would be nice to vote on something just to close this chapter of my life," said Sosa, 44, of Taylor.
Next week, Sosa plans to visit Greensboro, N.C., where his wife has found a job as a mechanic, to see if they would like to live there.
Harris Brown, 45, of Wyandotte would rather wait, saying he thinks the company is in worse shape than it lets on.
For AMFA, "it's an awful situation," said Gary Chaison, professor of management at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.
Northwest, which flies more than 60% of passengers at Metro Airport, has said it will start hiring permanent replacement mechanics Tuesday, an event that Chaison said could prompt mechanics to leave the picket line or even cross it -- leading to a slow fizzling out of the strike.
Northwest Airlines Corp. resumed hiring permanent replacements for striking mechanics on Friday, after their union refused to put the company's latest offer to a vote.
The airline's new proposal includes a 28 percent pay cut and cutting about 75 percent of the workforce.
Of the 4,400 mechanics who went on strike last month, dozens are finding new jobs.