Northwest Airlines and its mechanics union returned to the bargaining table Monday in last-ditch negotiations to avoid a strike or lockout that could start Friday at 11:01 p.m. central time.
Negotiating teams for both sides met at National Mediation Board offices in Washington, D.C., where national mediators are trying to broker a deal before Friday's end to the 30-day "cooling-off" period, when the mechanics can either strike or be locked out by the airline.
It's the first time the two sides have met since the union broke off talks Aug. 3. Many experts expect the talks to extend to the final hour.
"We plan on being here midnight Friday night if that's what it takes," said Jeff Mathews, spokesman for the negotiating team for the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association. Mathews said he wasn't allowed to describe the tone of the talks, but wouldn't use the word "progress."
Eagan, Minnesota-based Northwest issued a statement saying it was pleased talks resumed. "Northwest wants to reach a consensual agreement, in advance of the ... deadline, that provides wage and benefit levels that are fair to our AMFA employees while allowing Northwest to stem its record operating losses," the statement read.
Also Monday, the White House reiterated that it's not getting involved in the dispute. President Bush has the authority to appoint a presidential emergency board that could put things on hold, something he did in 2001 when Northwest mechanics also were on the verge of striking.
The White House said last month it wouldn't do this because the National Mediation Board concluded that a labor action at Northwest Airlines would not present a substantial disruption of interstate commerce.
"There's been no change in the administration's position from last month," White House spokesman Trent Duffy said Monday.
The mechanics and the airline are fighting over the $1.1 billion in annual labor savings that Northwest is seeking. Money-losing Northwest wants its mechanics to take $176 million in annual wage and benefit cuts, including a 25 percent pay cut and the layoff of about 2,000 additional mechanics. The 30-day cooling-off period began after the National Mediation Board declared the talks at impasse last month.
The union offered a proposal it says generates $143 million in annual savings, including a 16 percent pay cut for one year, and it wants part of those savings to come from credit for some of the 5,000 mechanics and cleaners Northwest has laid off since 2001. Northwest estimates the value of the mechanics' proposed cuts is far lower.
Joseph Daly, a professional arbitrator and mediator who teaches at Hamline University law school in St. Paul, said a mediator's goal is to simply keep both sides talking without emotions erupting. "As long as they're talking there hasn't been a breakdown," Daly said.