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Replacements may be permanent at Northwest
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Tim Payne, a 26-year mechanic with Northwest, says he's not intimidated by the prospect of the company hiring replacements permanently. (MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich)
Northwest Airlines says it will begin hiring permanent replacements for more than 2,500 striking mechanics on Tuesday. The airline says 1,000 aircraft cleaners and custodians, also in the mechanics union, have already been replaced by outside vendors. Mechanics union negotiators walked away from a new round of contract talks with the airline last weekend. The mechanics' situation seems more tenuous than ever.

Eagan, Minn. — Tim Payne, a 26-year mechanic with Northwest, says he's not rattled by the failed talks this weekend. Payne says that's because the talks in Minneapolis weren't negotiations at all, but a power-play by Northwest. He says union negotiators could have put the airline's proposal to union members for a vote, but he doubts they would ever think it would pass.

"That wasn't a deal. That was an insult. It really was. Most of us are fairly intelligent, and we could see it coming down the road," he says.

The airline's proposal would have cut the union to about 1,100 members at Northwest, one quarter their current number, and about one-tenth of their ranks as of four years ago. Payne says whatever severance package negotiators obtained, the plan would be a hard sell.

In a statement after talks broke down, Northwest says it is still willing to reach a consensual agreement with the union, but that, "economic pressures affecting the airline, particularly the skyrocketing cost of fuel, have intensified."

As he spoke, Payne stood picketing beside an airport employee gate. Northwest says it will begin hiring permanent replacements for the mechanics starting on Tuesday. Payne says he's not intimidated by the prospect.

"We're standing strong," he says. "We're all looking at other job opportunities. But we're here for the fight. It's a matter of principle to us."

Other mechanics may be losing heart. Larry Meier has worked 21 years at Northwest. While he thinks mechanics should have been able to vote on previous offers from Northwest, he agrees the latest one wasn't worth a vote. Meier says today, for the first time, he picked up the newspaper want-ads and began looking at carpentry jobs. He says going back to work with the strike still on is unthinkable. But even if the union settles, he's not so sure.

"The other thing is: do I even want to work for Northwest? It's been such a (bad) place to work for so long that most guys don't even want to go back," he says.

Meier's dire prediction is that the mechanics' jobs are gone for good, and that the replacements will be just as permanent as promised.

The replacement workforce would likely be a much smaller version of the union one. In its last offer to the union Northwest proposed to keep only 1,080 mechanics -- a little more than one-third the number on-duty shortly before the strike. During the strike, the airline has operated with 1,200 temporary replacements, although their ranks were supplemented by 300 managers and 400 mechanics supplied by vendors.

The key to operating with relatively few mechanics is nothing new: outsourcing. It would likely be the end of so-called "heavy" or "base" maintenance at Northwest. Most of these major overhauls are already performed by specialized companies in the U.S. and overseas. The limited number of overhauls that employed Northwest mechanics in Duluth, Detroit and the Twin Cities will likely be farmed out as well.

Based upon its temporary contingency plan and its last proposal to the union, Northwest also will likely eliminate all mechanics jobs outside the Twin Cities, Duluth, and Detroit.

Airline consultant Michael Boyd says it just doesn't make sense to have mechanics simply sitting on-call, getting paid every hour, when third-party technicians can be called in only when they're needed.

Well-known maintenance companies like Signature Aviation can fit the bill. So, says Boyd, can Northwest competitors.

"The indication that Northwest would farm this out to amateurs just isn't accurate. Generally speaking, it will be other carriers, like United Airlines at given location like Chicago, where United knows Airbuses, they know Boeings," he says.

Mechanics at both United and American Airlines made deals with their airlines to preserve jobs by taking on such work. But mechanics at both carriers have also made pledges not to perform struck work on Northwest Airlines planes, though Boyd expects that resistance to fade in time.

The irony will not be lost on union mechanics from Northwest, who may still be waiting for a deal.