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Northwest rank-and-file wondering "what's up?"
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Northwest Airlines mechanics and their families marched in the Detroit AFL-CIO Labor Day Parade on Monday. Negotiations resumed on Thursday but many in the rank-and-file aren't sure why? (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images )
Negotiators for Northwest Airlines and its striking mechanics unio renewed talks aimed at bringing an end to the mechanics' three-week walkout. The two sides are currently discussing a Northwest proposal that many union members say they could never accept. With little communication from inside the negotiations, many mechanics wonder why their negotiators are still talking.

St. Paul, Minn. — Stan Martin, a 26-year mechanic at Northwest, is one of those who would like to know what is going on.

"I can't seem to put the logic together. I'm absolutely baffled here," he says.

Martin is not a union leader; what he knows comes from talking with striking colleagues and watching the news. And he's having a hard time understanding what the negotiators bargaining on his behalf could still be talking about with Northwest, given what the company's been saying.

"Things aren't adding up," he says. "They asked us back to the table, and they say it's for worse conditions."

I think what we're doing right now with the union is establishing a record that will later be presented in bankruptcy court.
- Gary Chaison, labor relations professor

Northwest's latest proposal would hit the union even harder than the one that forced the strike three weeks ago. While negotiators in Minneapolis have not confirmed anything, more details emerged on Friday from union officials in Detroit. According to Dennis Sutton, the local vice president there, Northwest wants $203 million a year in concessions -- 15 percent more than the company's last offer. The plan cuts 75 percent of union jobs, including all cleaners and all mechanics outside Detroit, the Twin Cities, and Duluth.

Northwest is losing $4 million a day. The company has said it needs to expand the cost cuts its seeking from labor groups because recent spikes in fuel prices have exacerbated the company's financial situation.

In Detroit, Dennis Sutton estimates about only one-third of mechanics union jobs currently there would remain. He says mechanics who keep their jobs would have a 28-percent pay cut. Sutton says the severance package for union members who don't has been cut from 26 weeks in the last offer to 10 weeks in this one.

"It's just something that would never go through," he says. "Maybe it's the company's last-ditch effort before they file bankruptcy. And at this point, we think bankruptcy is our friend."

That's one hypothesis for what's going on: that the two sides aren't really negotiating at all, but rather are engaged in a kind of pre-bankruptcy dance. Gary Chaison, a labor relations professor at Clark University in Massachusetts, thinks union leaders want to make a strong show of bargaining in good faith before ultimately walking away and hoping for Northwest's financial collapse.

"I think there's a feeling on the union's part that there's an obligation to listen," according to Chaison. "But I think what we're doing right now with the union is establishing a record that will later be presented in bankruptcy court."

Chaison agrees with Sutton and other union officials who say a bankruptcy judge is likely to give them a better shake than Northwest.

Part of what union members say is so confusing to them right now is that Northwest prodded them to come back to the table, but then gave them little -- if any -- incentive to make a deal. However, the company has said it will hire permanent replacements starting next Tuesday if there's no contract agreement.

Ken Reed, the union local president in Duluth, thinks he knows what's going on. He says by reviving talks that would go nowhere, Northwest hoped to intimidate union mechanics into coming back to work to save their jobs. Reed says no sooner did Northwest draft its new offer than striking mechanics began getting personal phone calls from the company.

"They're actually trying to get people to cross the picket line, offering them jobs, as of today, with the offer that's on the table right now. They're trying to negotiate through the newspaper, as well as underhandedly with the membership," according to Reed.

Northwest Airlines declined to say whether it has been making such calls, but did say it has set up a toll-free number for any mechanics who wish to return.

Even if Northwest's current offer is the best that comes out of the current talks, some rank-and-file mechanics like Larry Meier want to send a message by voting on it.

"I would like to have the chance to vote, yes, though at this point it seems obvious it would be rejected. But that at least means that the membership looked at it and voted on it, not that the leadership decided it wasn't even worth it," he says.

Meier, who says he has "never been in favor" of his union's management, thinks leaders made a mistake by not allowing members to vote on the company's last offer, before the strike. Now, with mechanics stuck between bankruptcy and even deeper layoffs, he fears those leaders have lost the battle.

On another front, Northwest's pilots union reported today that the company is seeking even greater cuts than the $322 million originally sought.