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Clock starts ticking toward strike at Northwest Airlines
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Northwest Airlines continues to lose money, and the only way it says it can stop the bleeding is by cutting labor costs. The mechanics union says Northwest wants to cut too deeply. (Photo by Bill Alkofer/Getty Images)
The National Mediation Board has released Northwest Airlines and its mechanics union from mediated contract talks. This clears the way for a possible strike in about a month. Airline strikes are extremely rare, and the two sides often work out a deal at the last minute. But many observers see a Northwest mechanics strike as a distinct possibility.

Minneapolis, Minn. — In recent weeks, Northwest and its mechanics have taken baby steps through the highly controlled process of airline labor talks. Now that's all over. Only the parties themselves or President Bush can avert or postpone a strike. A walkout could legally begin at 11:01 p.m. Central time on Aug. 19.

A statement from the White House says Bush is "closely watching" the situation. No new negotiations are scheduled, but both parties expect to resume talks.

For now, their differences look intractable. Northwest is seeking $1.1 billion in labor cost cuts to stem years of financial bleeding. The airline says any less than $176 million in annual cuts from mechanics would put the airline at financial risk. That amounts to about a 25 percent pay cut.

AMFA has offered temporary pay cuts it says would save $143.5 million. Northwest disputes that, though, saying the union offer is really worth only $87 million because it includes money saved from earlier layoffs.

Mechanics union spokesman Steve MacFarlane says the airline's proposal, which has not changed, is impossible to accept.

"They are asking 53 percent of our members to voluntarily vote their jobs out of existence. That is a nonstarter for us," says MacFarlane. "How could we possibly agree to eliminate more than 50 percent of our members and their jobs?"

MacFarlane says with so much at stake, all 5,000 mechanics and cleaners represented by the union are ready to walk.

In recent days, Northwest has assured travelers that they can book with confidence. In a message to employees this week, CEO Doug Steenland said the airline's contingency plan was solid.

"The plan has the same FAA oversight and commitment to safety that our current maintenance program has," said Steenland. "We have every confidence that this plan will work and work well, enabling us to fly our full published schedule in any event."

Northwest says it has strengthened agreements with outside vendors, many of whom already take in Northwest planes for routine maintenance work.

Northwest says 63 percent of the vendor mechanics now in training have more than 10 years of major airline experience. An even greater percentage have more than five years experience.

Mechanics like MacFarlane say the challenge will be turning around planes at the airport, where many of the replacements have never worked. MacFarlane expects flights will begin to back up almost immediately in the Twin Cities, creating a cascade effect elsewhere.

"Northwest has put together a business plan that requires planes getting fixed quickly, throughout the day. To the replacement workers, all I say is, 'Good luck,'" MacFarlane says.

Mark Kahn, a retired aribrator and author of multiple books on airline labor disputes, says even if flights do run on time, Northwest will need to shore up passenger confidence.

"I think you readily presume that most passengers would be disturbed by flying on a plane where maintenance is being conducted by strike replacements -- knowing that the regular mechanics who had done the work reasonably well are not there," says Kahn.

They are asking 53 percent of our members to voluntarily vote their jobs out of existence. That is a nonstarter for us.
- Mechanics union spokesman Steve MacFarlane

Aside from replacement mechanics, other factors could affect how a strike plays out. Ed Perkins, who writes about the airline industry for SmarterTravel.com, says support from other unions could be crucial.

"If one or more key unions says, 'We are not on strike but we have to honor that picket line,' then all of a sudden you've got something coming to a halt a lot faster than it otherwise would," says Perkins.

The flight attendants union at Northwest has expressed the strongest support for mechanics. But a spokesman says in order to strike in sympathy, flight attendants would need to vote for that course of action. The union's board is considering that option, but has not called a vote.

Other Northwest unions appear less likely to honor a mechanics union picket line. The union has traded barbs with the powerful pilots union about the need for concessions. And the ground workers may have little sympathy for a group that broke away from their union several years ago.

One other wild card is bankruptcy. A bankruptcy judge would have the power to impose concessions and other business changes. Northwest says failing to get the cuts it needs from mechanics could take it down that path. But if it is truly disruptive, a strike itself could speed the dive into Chapter 11.

Mechanics union officials say they expect Northwest to declare bankruptcy even if the airline gets what it wants from them. By that logic, settling now to avoid bankruptcy has very little appeal to them.

In negotiations with other unions, Northwest has gotten $300 million from pilots and managers, and is seeking $148 million from flight attendants, according to their union.

The last major U.S. airline strike was when Northwest pilots walked off the job in 1998. That strike lasted for 15 days and resulted in a 12 percent raise over four years for pilots.

In May, AMFA mechanics at bankrupt United Airlines threatened to strike if a judge imposed pay cuts. Instead, mechanics approved a contract that included a 3.9 percent pay cut and fewer benefits.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)

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