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Fate of NWA Contract is Uncertain
By Andrew Haeg, Minnesota Public Radio
April 18, 2001
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Members of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association are gathered Wednesday to hear the details of their tentative contract with Northwest Airlines. If the union's almost 10,000 workers approve the deal, it would end more than four years of acrimonious talks. But Northwest's separate announcement - that its loss in the latest quarter nearly tripled to $123 million - highlights the difficult conditions the airline faces.

Dan Barras is a 20-year veteran of Northwest Airlines. The line maintenance mechanic talks with MPR's Andrew Haeg's about the contract settlement. Listen online.
THREE MEETINGS AT A BLOOMINGTON HOTEL are the first chance AMFA's rank and file are getting to examine the contract's fine print. The tentative agreement reached earlier this month promises to raise mechanics' base pay, initially by 24 percent. AMFA Local 33 President Steve MacFarlane says it's not yet clear which way the membership is leaning. "Right now it seems mixed. But there's more to like in this contract than not to like," he said.

Some mechanics, many of whom didn't want their name used, are undecided. "It's a very good contract and the hourly is a very good wage," one says. "I'm very happy with everything that has been negotiated for."

But others, like veteran mechanic Dan Barras, say - on balance - they'll vote to reject the contract. "There are some issues that were not sufficient in my determination. But there are a lot of things that are very good about it. But I'm still going to vote 'no,'" he told Minnesota Public Radio.

Specifically, Barras says the airline isn't doing enough to pay for increased cost of living when mechanics work at airports in more expensive cities, like San Francisco or Los Angeles.

The biggest sticking point seems to be retroactive pay. In 1993, mechanics agreed to pay cuts to help the airline stave off bankruptcy. The union had originally demanded 24 percent of their total wages since their last contract expired in 1996 - a total of $800 million. The tentative agreement stipulated a 3.5-percent payment - $120 million.

Local 33* president Steve MacFarlane. "When you look at a contract that seems to be as good as this one, it's easy for someone on the outside to say, 'Wow, look at this, it's a fabulous contract,'" says Local 33 President Steve MacFarlane. "Well if you're looking at it from our perspective, when you've spent most of your time at Northwest Airlines on concessionary wages, and behind the power curve for so many years, it's really hard to get all gleeful and happy and (say) 'Look at us we really did something.' You finally got back to where you should've been all these years."
"When unions get themselves into trouble with contract ratification, sometimes it might be because of the quality of the settlement. But I think a lot of times it might be because of the quality of the information"

- John Budd
University of Minnesota

Despite some criticism, the meetings were calm, even genial. That's in stark contrast to similar sessions in 1998, when mechanics vociferously opposed a deal reached by a different union then representing them in contract talks.

Now, some three years later, like Steve Eilers said, the AMFA leadership conducted a fair and open process. "We were opened up to negotiations like we've never been before. So, you could take a portion and just say, 'No I don't want it done that way.' Before we never knew what was going on in those areas until you read it, and you had maybe a week to look at it and you were only voting on the key issues. Now, you're seeing exactly what's there."

University of Minnesota labor expert John Budd says that sense among the rank and file makes a 'yes' vote more likely.

"When unions get themselves into trouble with contract ratification, sometimes it might be because of the quality of the settlement. But I think a lot of times it might be because of the quality of the information, and the fact that he rank-and-file have felt disengaged from the whole process. I don't think that's the case here with AMFA."

Northwest President Doug Steenland says the airline is eager to resolve this labor dispute. If the union ratifies the deal, he says the airline will have a leg up on its competitors.

"We'll be one of the few major U.S.-network carriers to have signed agreements with all of our labor unions. And what that means is that customers can book their summer travel with Northwest with confidence," Steeland says.

The airline also announced that it's lost $123 million in the first quarter, and it posted a separate $94 million charge to cover retroactive pay for the mechanics.

The union will mail ballots to the members starting Friday, and plans to announce the result on May 9th.