August 15, 2005
Negotiators for Northwest Airlines and its mechanics union return to the bargaining table for another round of contract talks Monday in Washington, D.C. Northwest's mechanics can legally walkout at 11:00 p.m. on Friday if a contract agreement isn't reached by then. The negotiations are taking place at the headquarters of the National Mediation Board.
Washington, D.C. — Northwest management and Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association officials are expressing no optimism that after months of talks this latest round of negotiations will somehow produce a settlement.
U of M Carlson School of Management Human Resources Professor John Budd says from the National Mediation Board's perspective, the primary goal of the talks will be to keep the union and management at the table.
"I think this week, the main thing the mediators will try to accomplish is simply try to keep the parties talking. Try to make sure the negotiations don't break down. Again, in the past, negotiations -- if they broke down, it wasn't that big of a deal in that there's always time to meet in the future. That isn't true this week," Budd said.
The previous round of talks ended abruptly at the beginning of August. Union negotiators walked out after the first of four scheduled days of meetings at the NMB in Washington.
The union accused Northwest of failing to negotiate in good faith. The union called Northwest's profit sharing and job protection offers, "meaningless."
Northwest is seeking $176 million in annual cost cuts from the mechanics as part of a company wide efffort to slash expenses by more than $1.1 billion.
Northwest would achieve savings by laying off a little more than half of its them and cutting the pay of those remaining by about 25%.
In 2001, the last time Northwest faced a mechanics strike, President Bush signaled early on he would prevent the union workers from walking out by creating what's called a "Presidential Emergency Board." Days before that strike deadline Bush did just that.
This time around the White House says it has no plans to get involved. White House spokesman Allen Abney says the Bush administration is confident Northwest can continue flying without its union mechanics. That eases concerns about the potential economic disruption a strike could cause.
"The National Mediation Board has found that a labor action at Northwest Airlines would not present a substantial disruption of interstate commerce and the administration does not dispute this conclusion based on current information and the president is not creating a Presidential Emergency Board," Abney said.
Abney says the White House is monitoring the situation with Northwest and its mechanics. Even if the White House does not formally intervene in the dispute, the former Dean of Cornell Unveristy's School of Industrial Relations School, Charles Rhemus, says that does not preclude the Bush administrqation and others in Washington from exerting pressure on company and union leaders.
"In Washington, there are other political figures who might be influential in the thinking of one side or the other. A senator, a congressman, even some high White House offical can be brought into the meetings in a last ditch effort to bring about some change in position which might ultimately settle the dispute," Rhemus says. "Now I don't think those people are brought in to actually mediate, but they do provide a kind of high level cover for unpleasent decisions the negotiating committees from each side may have to make." A pivital issue in the dispute is the number of job cuts Northwest wants.
U of M Labor Relation Professor John Remington says he suspects Northwest might be willing to back away from its workforce reduction proposal if it wants to secure a contract with its mechanics. Remington points out that union leaders would have a very difficult time bringing a proposed settlement to the rank and file if the settlement eliminates more than half of the worker's jobs.
"What ever they do, the bargaining committee is going to have to come back and sell a concessionary agreement to the members of the bargaining unit and they're got to get a majority of those people to vote for it to in order to get ratification," Remington says.
"And with this issue about job cuts hanging out there, it is extremely difficult to do that when many of these people are going to lose their jobs if they vote for that kind of agreement. They've got to be able to get an agreement that's good enough to get ratified, that's going to bring 50 percent of those mechanics, 50 percent plus one, along to vote for it."
According to information on the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association website, the talks will take place all week in Washington and could run right up to Friday night's strike deadline.