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Northwest, Mechanics Talks Break Down
By Mark Zdechlik
March 12, 2001
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Northwest Airlines mechanics remain on the job under presidential order as a three-member Bush administration-appointed panel begins an investigation of the airline's labor dispute.

Negotiators for the airline and union worked with the National Mediation Board through out the weekend, but failed to reach an agreement on the four-and-a-half-year-old contract dispute. The union is now talking about striking Northwest in 60 days, after the emergency board has run its course. The airline says it will accept whatever contract recommendation comes from the independent panel.

Union leader O.V. Delle Femine blames President Bush's order creating an Emergency Board for limiting the success of the negotiations in Washington.
(MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik)
NORTHWEST AIRLINES AND THE AIRCRAFT MECHANICS FRATERNAL ASSOCIATIONwaited until exactly midnight Eastern time to announce their latest effort to resolve the contract dispute failed.

Union leader O.V. Delle Femine says the talks had little chance for success after President Bush announced late last week he would not allow Northwest's nearly 10,000 mechanics and aircraft cleaners to strike.

"We made several really big moves and we thought that would entice the company to movements, but the final outcome today showed us that they've not willing to move and, again, I blame President Bush because of the PEB that does not give any urgency to get a contract because there's no strike deadline," he said.

Northwest's chief negotiator declined an interview request. In a written statement, the airline said it was unable to reach a deal with its mechanics despite its best effort.

The next step if for President's Bush's emergency board to hear both sides' position and make a settlement proposal within 30 days. No further talks are scheduled.

Although the union and airline were unable to agree on wage and pension benefit increases, they reached tentative agreements on several work rules and on a health insurance package. According to the union, all progress in the area of wages over the past several day has been lost and two sides have reverted to their earlier positions.

The union is demanding roughly double the 20-percent wage increase the airline has been offering.

The talks did not break off until just about an hour before the deadline. The director of the Aviation Institute at George Washington University, Darryl Jenkins, says knowing a third party would soon be making a settlement recommendation, the airline and the union likely continued talking as long as they did to give the impression each was working in earnest to settle.

"The last thing you want to do is to go into a Presidential Emergency Board and appear unreasonable," he said.

Prior to the beginning of the now-expired 30-day cooling-off period Northwest said it would accept binding arbitration to settle the dispute, but the union declined.

Both sides have the option of accepting or rejecting whatever proposal the Emergency Board puts forward.

Northwest is promising to go along with the panel's recommendation. The union is not making that pledge.

University of Minnesota Associate Professor of Human Resources and Industrial Relations, John Budd, says in agreeing to accept whatever PEB recommendation is put forward, Northwest is making a public relations move more than anything.

"I think it's for public consumption and trying to send a signal that you know we're not interested in having a labor dispute here. We don't want people to stop buying tickets for the summer travel period because of any uncertainty," Budd said.

Budd thinks it's a relatively risky strategy, asking what if the PEB determines Northwest mechanics are due the level of compensation they've been demanding?

Northwest has repeatedly accused of AMFA of orchestrating protest efforts to disrupt its schedule. Union leaders are, once again, publicly urging the membership not to engage in any job actions. But there are rumors throughout Northwest there will be problems, and maybe not just at Northwest.

In forcing Northwest mechanics to remain on the job, President Bush vowed not to allow any airline strikes this year, angering workers at several of the major carriers also struggling with contentious contract negotiations.

"One way or another we'll all going to be disrupted because of this," Darryl Jenkins says. "What Bush is doing is interesting and it's certainly sending a signal, but at the same time it's not taking care of the problem. The only thing you're doing is making the unions more and more angry at you."

Northwest mechanics members plan to march on the White House to protest the president's intervention and workers from unions at other airlines are expected to join them. They also say there will be protest picket lines greeting travelers at more than 20 of the nation's largest airports.