Mesaba Unions Say They're Ready to Walk

Feb. 28, 2006
The airline is in the midst of a trial in which it is asking the judge overseeing its reorganization to reject its contracts with the two labor groups.

Mesaba Airlines pilots and flight attendants say they're poised to strike if the bankrupt Eagan-based regional carrier is allowed to impose contracts with severe wage cuts on them.

The airline is in the midst of a trial in which it is asking the judge overseeing its reorganization to reject its contracts with the two labor groups. Both said Monday their members have authorized strikes if that happens and Mesaba imposes terms.

"The only viable path out of bankruptcy for Mesaba Airlines includes consensual agreements with its labor groups," said Tom Wychor, chairman of Mesaba's pilots union, in a prepared statement. "Management's continued abuse of the bankruptcy process can only lead to liquidation of the airline — either through a pilot strike or through a mass exodus of highly experienced employees."

The concessions sought by Mesaba are "not acceptable and will not be tolerated," said flight attendants union Vice President Carla Rogat.

Mesaba is proposing wage cuts of 15.7 percent to 16.5 percent for flight attendants. That would make them the lowest paid in the industry, Rogat said. After the cuts, their annual pay would range from about $11,800 to $18,500.

Mesaba provides regional air services for Northwest Airlines. For the most part, Mesaba ferries passengers between smaller cities and Northwest's hubs in Detroit, Memphis, Tenn., and Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Looking to drive down its own costs, Northwest, which also is in bankruptcy, is squeezing Mesaba, taking back planes it leased to Mesaba and reducing the flying that Mesaba does for Northwest.

The pilots say they're willing to provide millions of dollars in concessions, but the airline, they insist, is asking for more than it needs.

The starting salary for a Mesaba pilot is now $21,000 per year, and the average pilot makes about $45,000, the union says.

Mesaba wants to cut labor costs for pilots by 19.4 percent, though, mostly with wage cuts.

After the cuts, the average captain flying a 34-seat Saab plane would have a base pay of about $57,300; a first officer, $35,000, says Mesaba.

But with the company looking to have employees pay half the cost of their health insurance coverage, a beginning Mesaba pilot could gross only about $13,000 after paying for medical insurance, the union says. And the most veteran pilots could see their pay slashed by about 60 percent as Mesaba loses its larger planes. The pilots take an extra hit in the wallet as they're shifted to smaller planes. Pay rates for flying them are lower.

Mesaba says it wants to reach agreements with its unions. But if it doesn't and contracts are imposed on the unions, Mesaba contends the unions could not legally strike.

Martin J. Moylan can be reached at [email protected] or 651-228-5479.

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