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In an update to AMFA members Sunday, spokesman Jeff Mathews said the negotiating committee agreed to Northwest's targets on layoffs and pay cuts, but the sticking point was severance packages for the workers who will be laid off. AMFA asked for 20 weeks of severance pay, but the company refused to pay more than 16 weeks, Mathews said. (MPR file photo)
Northwest's mechanics union is still on strike after contract talks with the airline broke down over the weekend. Northwest is now asking for even deeper job cuts than the company wanted at the start of the strike. In a major reversal, the union says it was willing to agree to most of the concessions, in order to put them to a vote by the rank-and-file. But talks crumbled around one major issue -- severance pay.

Minneapolis, Minn. — For months now, the chasm between Northwest and the mechanics union have seemed vast. The airline wanted to cut the union's ranks in half. The Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, or AMFA, chose to strike instead of suffering that blow.

But the union's three-week-long strike hasn't hobbled the airline's operations in the way AMFA initially predicted.

Northwest is now asking the mechanics for concessions totaling $203 million, $27 million more than the plan the mechanics rejected when they went on strike. What's more, Northwest is now threatening permanently to hire the contract workers filling in for striking union members as early as Tuesday.

Though AMFA maintains a tough tone about the strike, in negotiations this past weekend they agreed to Northwest's toughest demands. AMFA agreed to the elimination of more than 3,000 positions in an effort to give union members a chance to vote on the company's proposal.

"We did agree that Northwest airlines would only have to job protect 1,080 employees," said Jeff Mathews, AMFA negotiations spokesman, "and that we'd get the ratification done and get them an answer on the ratification process by Sept. 20."

But Mathews says there was one major sticking point.

"The severance pay was one of the core issues that they never met our minimum requirement," says Mathews. "We really have to have a minimum of 20 weeks' severance pay at the imposed rate of pay."

Mathews says the airline would only grant 16 weeks of severance. According to the union, the chasm between the two sides was reduced to a $10 million gap. And yet it was still too much.

Northwest would not comment on specifics, but says its severance package equaled "the maximum amount available to any Northwest contract employee."

Northwest has said it is losing $4 million a day, and needs to cut its labor costs to stop the financial bleeding. The mechanics union says Northwest has also increased the total savings target by $300 million, to $1.4 billion.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Northwest said it was likely to increase its savings target. The company also says it wants to return to the bargaining table with the mechanics union.

But with talks halted, no new ones scheduled, and Northwest threatening to hire permanent replacements Tuesday, what's next for AMFA?

"Well, we stay on strike. {If} our guys don't go to work, Northwest can't pull this off," says Steve MacFarlane, AMFA's assistant national director.

MacFarlane insists that Northwest's operations are faltering, but that the airline is covering up errors made by replacement mechanics.

That allegation stems from a Federal Aviation Administration inspector's memorandum in the early days of the strike, detailing safety concerns at Northwest. The FAA maintains Northwest's operation is safe.

But MacFarlane says it's not just the replacement workers' alleged lack of skill that will eventually hurt the airline. He's also convinced that Northwest's threat to hire the replacements is toothless, because those workers won't actually want to be hired.

"These people are transitory employees. They're contractors, they bounce from state to state for a couple of months," says MacFarlane. "These people have homes and families in other states. And they're going to pack up their stuff and leave here in the next couple of weeks or months."

But that scenario seems unlikely, according to Neil Bernstein, a professor emeritus at Washington University School of Law.

"I can't believe that the majority won't say, 'These are good jobs, I'll take it,'" says Bernstein. "Especially since as they're hired as permanent replacements, then they become the most senior people in their classification, and that gives them a lot of discretion in picking their assignment."

Bernstein says it remains to be seen whether Northwest will actually make such a move, which he says would escalate tensions with the mechanic's union to a "wartime situation."