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Northwest mechanics prepare for strike
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Twin Cities-based members of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Associaition head into a strike preparations meeting on Tuesday. Union leaders say a strike is inveitable, unless Northwest changes its negotiating position. (MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik)
Mechanics union leaders at Northwest Airlines say they don't want any work slowdowns that could disrupt the airline's flight schedule. Leaders of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association say that is a key message at strike preparation meetings Tuesday for thousands of Twin Cities-based mechanics, custodians and cleaners.

With the busy summer travel season at hand, tensions between Northwest and the mechanics are rising. Northwest says it is preparing for a possible strike or job actions that analysts say neither the airline nor its workers can afford.

Bloomington, Minn. — Several years ago, battles between Northwest Airlines and its unions were constantly in the news. Workers accused the airline of failing to share its newfound prosperity, years after they helped Northwest avoid bankruptcy by agreeing to pay cuts. The pilots shut down Northwest with a strike in 1998.

Two years later, a federal judge issued a restraining order barring Northwest mechanics from work slowdowns, which the airline blamed for flight delays and cancellations.

For thousands of travelers, including Californian Mike Brenda, it was an unnerving time.

"Because if you have some whacko that's disgruntled, he could forget to do something and then the plane goes down. So I don't even want to think about it," Brenda told Minnesota Public Radio in the fall of 2000.

In 2001, President Bush headed off a second walkout at Northwest with an executive order, extending a strike deadline for the airline's mechanics. They remained on the job, and eventually agreed to a contract.

Northwest and its mechanics are talking tough again. The airline is seeking wage and job cuts from the mechanics, as part of a companywide effort to slash labor costs by more than $1 billion.

There won't be any shenanigans or anything like that, that happens this time.
- Ted Ludwig, AMFA Local 33 president

Northwest has asked the National Mediation Board to declare an impasse in negotiations with the mechanics, which could trigger a 30-day countdown to a strike.

Wall Street analysts seem in agreement that, without significant labor savings, Northwest is headed for bankruptcy. And if labor problems cost Northwest business this summer, a filing would likely come sooner rather than later.

"We don't know if there will be any work disruptions," says Ray Neidl, who follows the airline industry at Calyon Securities. "That would be suicidal on the part of the unions, because they'd be cutting their own throats by driving away business. But just the mere threat of a strike could cause some people to book away, and right now Northwest needs every penny of revenue they can get."

The mechanics union is seeking to reassure passengers. Ted Ludwig, head of the Twin Cities mechanics union local, insists that this time around, passengers don't need to worry about flight cancellations -- that is, unless a legal strike is declared.

"Our membership is very wise now. We've been through that before. There won't be any shenanigans or anything like that, that happens this time," says Ludwig. "I've communicated in print and verbally that the union will not come out and nod and wink if we're going to have a job action -- that it will come right from the leadership."

Last week, in front of the terminal at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, several travelers said they were unaware of mounting tension between Northwest and its mechanics.

But Paula Christiansen, who lives in Louisiana and who frequently visits her family in Minnesota, said she's heard about the dispute. She said if it ends up wreaking havoc on Northwest's schedule, she'll use another carrier.

"I have flown other airlines and I continue to like Northwest. So I'd rather support them in getting it worked out than going to another airline," Christiansen said. "But, if I had to, that's what I would do."

At Carlson Wagonlit Travel, one of the nation's largest travel agencies, spokeswoman Maggie Buttweiler says so far the contract dispute has not caused much worry for customers or travel agents.

"We just have not heard much from customers," Buttweiler said. "We also haven't heard much when we're speaking with our agencies. They haven't been telling us that it's a real high level concern of theirs yet."

Northwest declined a taped interview for this story, but acknowledged some travel agents have inquired about possible work interruptions.

In a written statement, Northwest said it's making contingency plans to protect its operations, including "expanding vendor relationships, and in some cases, augmenting staff."

Northwest would not comment on reports that it has begun hiring replacement workers, but denies mechanics union allegations that the airline has already hired 400 replacement technicians.

Representatives for the airline underscore that Northwest has been seeking wage cuts for more than two years, and that so far its operations have been running smoothly.