The National Mediation Board has broken off talks between Northwest Airlines and its mechanics union. Contract negotiations that have spanned more than four years are again in limbo, suggesting an agreement between the airline and a powerful labor group remains far off.
THE MEDIATION BOARD ADJOURNED a round of talks that began last Monday. The federal agency has not formally recessed the negotiations, but declined to schedule a new round, abandoning plans for more meetings in 10 days. An official with the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association's Local 33 in the Twin Cities would only say union leaders are highly disappointed. The union was also rebuffed in its latest request to be released from mediated talks, which would start a 30-day countdown before the union could strike.
Updates from union negotiators posted on AMFA Web sites indicate the mediation board was unhappy with the talks' slow progress, and on Wednesday pressured the union to move more quickly toward a settlement. The reports reveal both sides remained far apart on wages, despite movement in the company's position and a big drop in the union's wage demands before the latest talks convened.
A spokesman for Northwest declined to comment on the talks other than to say the company will follow the board's direction on scheduling.
Last November, the board recessed an earlier round of talks after union negotiators proposed a contract that would more than double the average mechanic's pay to nearly $115,000 a year. Northwest CEO John Dasburg later described AMFA's demands as "bizarre."
Before the latest talks broke off, Steve MacFarlane, president of Local 33, defended a proposal he described as very aggressive.
"My expectation, and I know that a lot of our members' expectation, has always been to recover our lost standard of living. We have been in idle for the last 10 years. This group has watched a robust, booming economy pass us by," MacFarlane said.
The mechanics have not had a new contract since 1996, which was the end of a three-year period of concessions for the mechanics and other labor groups that helped save Northwest from bankruptcy. In 1998, the mechanics rejected a tentative agreement and voted out their former union. Later, Northwest unilaterally gave a four percent raise. But MacFarlane says a big jump would be consistent with past practice, when mechanics' wages roughly doubled every 10 years -- until the 1990s.
"So when you look in the decade of the '90s, one could easily make the argument that it's not unrealistic to ask for our starting position of a 115 percent pay increase. We're simply trying to maintain what this industry has always paid us," says MacFarlane.
But John Budd, a University of Minnesota expert on labor relations, says the union leadership has put itself in a difficult position by creating high expectations among the rank and file.
"A strategy that comes in with such an extreme opening position is almost guaranteed to fail. At a minimum, it certainly sets up the leadership for some hard explanations that they're going to have to deliver to the rank and file down the road," says Budd.
Local 33 President Steve MacFarlane says expectations vary from region to region.
"Here in Minneapolis, the expectation that we have built, or that we have communicated to the membership, is well within Northwest Airline's ability to pay," MacFarlane says.
The indefinite end of talks may throw the spotlight on a federal court. Northwest sued the union in November, alleging it orchestrated a slowdown that caused the delay or cancellation of hundreds of flights. The union denies the charge. The judge has ordered both sides to comply with the law governing airline labor contracts, and both are awaiting a ruling on whether the union has acted in contempt of that order.
Bill Catlin covers business for Minnesota Public Radio. Reach him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.