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Union Must Sell Agreement to Northwest Mechanics
By Andrew Haeg
Minnesota Public Radio
April 10, 2001

Northwest Airlines and its mechanics union are awaiting a vote by union members, to see if a tentative contract agreement reached early Monday morning will end their more than four-year-old labor dispute.

Northwest officials say CEO Richard Anderson's first priority since taking over in March was to reach a contract agreement with the airline's mechanics union. Union members will vote on the contract over the next couple of weeks.
(Photo courtesy of Northwest Airlines)
MECHANICS WOULD RECEIVE A 24 PERCENT PAY HIKE, $85 a month per year worked in pension benefits, and a 3.5 percent annual retroactive pay bonus stretching back to October 1996, under the tentative agreement between Northwest and the mechanics union.

Mechanic Mike Uttenhove makes about $45,000 per year. If members of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association ratify the contract, his base salary would rise to about $56,000. He'd also receive between $10,000 and $20,000 in back pay, and about $6,000 per year in professional fees. Uttenhove says he thinks the overall contract is good for the union, even though he was disappointed in the back pay and some other provisions. So far, he hasn't decided whether he'll vote for it or not.

The numbers in this agreement are somewhat better than those the airline informally offered in March. Union leaders rejected that deal without presenting it to the rank-and-file, upsetting some union members. Now, Uttenhove says he'll wait to see the wording of the contract.

"A lot of people think it's all about the money. But language can hurt you a lot worse than not having money there," says Uttenhove.


The union will mail the full details of the agreement to its 9,800 mechanics by the end of this week. And the union's primary task will be to assuage whatever doubts members like Uttenhove might have. University of Minnesota labor expert John Budd says other Northwest unions have rejected tentative agreements simply, he says, because they failed to clearly convey the contracts' finer points.

"AMFA has to realize that communication with its rank-and-file is really quite crucial over the next couple of weeks, if they want it ratified," says Budd.

If members do approve the contract, it would mark the end of a tumultuous era for Northwest. The mechanics would be the last of the unions that helped bail the company out of financial trouble in the early '90s to agree to a new contract. Northwest spokesman Doug Killian says ending this dispute was the first priority of the airline's new CEO Richard Anderson and COO Doug Steenland, since they rose to the top spots in March.

"They have a high priority on very strong relationships with our employees and customers. Now reaching a tentative agreement with AMFA achieves that first goal," says Killian.

The Presidential Emergency Board, which was created to find a solution to the contract dispute, has stopped its work. Minnesota's 8th District Congressman Jim Oberstar, the senior Democrat on the House Transportation committee, says he's glad the two sides avoided further federal intervention.

"This is much better for both parties, management and labor, to come to an agreement on their own - rather than have the collective bargaining process circumvented by the Presidential Emergency Board, and having Congress substitute the board's judgement for that of the parties," says Oberstar.

That pending federal action may have pushed the parties to reach a solution on their own. The U of M's John Budd says AMFA may also have wanted to resolve this dispute quickly, to show mechanics at other airlines just what they could do.

"They wanted to be able to say that they won these gains on their own. I think they wanted to do it relatively quickly because the union organizing drive at United is heating up. I think they want to get this settlement wrapped up so they can concentrate on United Airlines," says Budd.


If Northwest resolves this dispute, the company may have a leg up on its large competitors, United, American and Delta, all of which are currently embroiled in protracted labor disputes.

"This it the biggest plus for Northwest - to have this all done and behind them," says John Remington, a labor expert at the University of Minnesota. "Their contracts are all settled, their competitor airlines are in labor turmoil. Northwest can make hay out of this and really encourage people to travel on Northwest, without any fear of a work stoppage or a disruption in travel," says Remington.

Even though question remarks remain, mechanic Mike Uttenhove is looking forward to a time when thoughts of the dispute no longer dominate his every waking hour. He says it's been a long fight, and he says whatever happens, it was worth it.

"I think if we didn't put that time and misery into it, the company would have got us to agree to a lot less a long time ago. That's the only way you get anything - you've just got to stick to your guns. You get what you bargain for," says Uttenhove.

Union officials expect members to take about two weeks to review the contract and case their votes.