Northwest Mechanics Break Off Negotiations

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Mechanics walked away from talks with Northwest Airlines Corp. on Wednesday, accusing the carrier of refusing to bargain. The company's shares tumbled 8.6 percent.

They can strike after 12:01 a.m. EDT on Aug. 20. Northwest, the nation's fourth-largest airline, has vowed to keep flying.

''Clearly Northwest Airlines would prefer a strike over an agreement, and it looks like they're probably going to get their wish,'' said Steve MacFarlane, spokesman for the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association.

Shares of Northwest fell 41 cents, or 8.6 percent, to close at $4.37 on the Nasdaq Stock Market, where they have traded in a 52-week range of $3.77 to $11.83.

Northwest hasn't budged from its original demand for pay cuts of about 25 percent and the right to hire contractors to do more of the work of its AMFA mechanics, cleaners, and custodians.

Northwest spokesman Kurt Ebenhoch said the airline currently hires outsiders for 37 percent of that work. That's just shy of the 38 percent cap mechanics agreed to in 2001 as part of a deal that included raises of about 24 percent for mechanics and 13 percent for cleaners and custodians.

The airline wants to lay off roughly 2,000 of AMFA's current 4,500 Northwest workers. In January 2002, Northwest employed 8,390 AMFA workers.

''It's not even so much about the pay. This is about Northwest airlines trying to eliminate us and break our union,'' MacFarlane said.

Mediated talks resumed on Tuesday in Washington. Ebenhoch said the company ''made a number of significant offers to AMFA'' including job protection for three-quarters of its workers and a profit-sharing plan. He said Northwest was willing to resume negotiations.

But the airline's job protection would only apply to the 2,500 workers left after the others are laid off, said AMFA contract coordinator Jeff Mathews. And he said Northwest wants to lay off all of its cleaners and custodians.

''They'd like to get rid of them altogether. They said that at the table,'' Mathews said.

MacFarlane said a profit-sharing with a money-losing company wasn't much of an offer. Northwest lost $225 million in its last quarter alone, and has lost more than $2.5 billion since January 2001.

''Profit sharing in the airline industry is a joke,'' MacFarlane said.

He said mechanics at Southwest Airlines and United Airlines have each pledged $10,000 a month to help the union if it strikes. AMFA has never maintained a strike fund, instead advising members to make sure they're financially prepared to lose their pay in case there's a strike, MacFarlane said.

Talks had been scheduled to run through Friday, but the union said no talks are planned now.

Northwest said it still hopes to make a deal.

''We believe that it is in the best interest of our employees for the parties to remain at the table, and the company remains available for negotiations as scheduled,'' Ebenhoch said.

Older carriers such as Northwest have been battered by low-cost competition and rising fuel prices. And even the older carriers have gotten most of their workers to take pay cuts. At Northwest, only pilots have agreed to cut their pay. Their deal, combined with cuts to salaried workers, is saving the airline $300 million a year.

Northwest has said it wants a total of $1.1 billion in annual savings, including $176 million from mechanics. AMFA has offered temporary cuts it says would add up to $143 million a year, a number Northwest disputes.

Aviation consultant Robert Mann said that if Northwest breaks the union, it will be AMFA's fault for demanding to be paid more than most other airline mechanics.

Northwest is letting the union ''hang themselves. They're giving them enough rope and they're going to hang themselves. I hate to use that analogy, but Northwest knows where the rope is.''