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Though far from certain, strike possibility at Northwest is real
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Ted Ludwig, the president of the local mechanics union in the Twin Cities, says he does not expect "heavy duty talks" during the cooling-off period. (MPR file photo)
It's a question important to almost anyone flying to, from, or through Minnesota in the coming months -- will Northwest Airlines mechanics go on strike? Airline strikes are rare. They're the last resort in a complex negotiating process designed to prevent a walkout.

St. Paul, Minn. — The Northwest mechanics union says it's ready to strike. The airline says it's training their replacements. Both sides have sent a clear message to each other in recent weeks -- bring it on.

But in the airline industry, all this bluster comes to nothing unless they can convince the National Mediation Board. Charles Rehmus is a retired arbitrator for the board, who helped author a book on its history.

"The National Mediation Board has the ability to hold the parties in continuing negotiations as long as they deem it profitable, reasonable or worthwhile. It is not up to the parties to determine how long the mediation process shall continue," says Rehmus.

Right now the board's three members in Washington D.C. are considering requests from both sides to declare the negotiations are at an impasse. According to Northwest, the union's wage-cutting offer provides less than half the savings the airline needs. The union says it can't negotiate with a company that won't budge from its original position.

The cuts Northwest is asking for are so draconian, it's unclear whether the mechanics have any options except a strike.
- John Budd, U of M industrial relations professor

Rehmus has no direct knowledge of the Northwest talks. But he says the board considers far more than the expressed desires of the two parties. Near the top of the list is the effect of a strike upon the nation's air transportation system.

"One of the things the three board members and their mediators surely would be looking at is the issue of keeping as much service as possible, even though we have to allow -- occasionally do allow -- airlines to be struck," he says.

Rehmus says the board has a rule of thumb, for example, that two major carriers should never have service disrupted at the same time by labor or other problems. With much of the industry in rough condition, that possibility certainly exists if Northwest is incapacitated by a strike.

The board has no deadline; it could decide tomorrow, or it could take weeks. If it declares the talks at an impasse, the board will offer binding arbitration, which is rarely accepted. If either side turns it down, the clock starts ticking on a 30-day cooling-off period, after which a strike could occur.

University of Minnesota industrial relations professor John Budd expects the board will release Northwest and the mechanics. Even then a strike is no foregone conclusion. Budd says the cooling-off period could significantly turn up the heat.

"I think partly what's going on is that each side hopes that as a strike becomes a more realistic threat looming on the horizon, rather than just some theoretical thing in the future, both sides hope that threat will cause the other side to change their perspective," Budd says.

The pressure of a deadline has a way of making things happen. For example, 11th-hour talks averted a strike at Northwest regional partner Mesaba Airlines in early 2004.

In this case, though, both sides have publically staked out positions with little flexibility. The president of the local mechanics union in the Twin Cities says he does not expect "heavy duty talks" during the cooling-off period. Budd says far more than other labor group, the mechanics' negotiating situation is truly "desperate."

"Northwest has outsourced a significant amount of work, and they're chomping at the bit to outsource even more. And the cuts Northwest is asking for are so draconian, it's unclear whether the mechanics have any options except a strike. Just because, again, what they're facing is so dire," Budd says.

Northwest is seeking to eliminate some 2,000 mechanics jobs and reduce the pay of those remaining by about 25 percent. Northwest says that's what's necessary to stop financial losses totalling $3 billion over several years.

If both sides are careening toward a strike, the White House can slow their momentum. President Bush helped forestall a Northwest mechanics strike four years ago by establishing a Presidential Emergency Board, giving the parties an additional 60 days to negotiate.

But the president has far more on his plate now than in March 2001. And though mechanics vow to bring service to a halt, Northwest says flights will continue.

Neither Budd nor retired arbitrator Charles Rehmus expect the president to step in this time. So while a strike is at least a month away -- and still far from certain -- the prospect of a walk-out by Northwest mechanics seems entirely real.

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