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Northwest mechanics to vote on deal that would end strike

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Mechanics at Northwest Airlines walked off the job last August. (MPR file photo)
Northwest Airline's striking mechanics will get to vote on a deal that could end their strike, but without a return to work. A deal between union negotiators and the company would change the workers' status from "on strike" to "laid off." That would entitle mechanics who are walking the picket line to some severance pay and unemployment benefits. Union leaders have not allowed union members to vote on Northwest's previous contract proposals. To some observers, the time is ripe for the members to get that vote.

Minneapolis, Minn. — The agreement between Northwest and the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association -- AMFA -- won't recover any of the jobs that have gone to permanent replacement workers during the course of the strike. Northwest has hired nearly 900 replacements, about half are union members who crossed the picket line or who had been laid off from Northwest before the strike.

The new proposal would put striking workers on a "recall" list, putting them in line for any jobs that open up. But the deal offers striking mechanics the possibility of some income: four weeks layoff pay, plus accumulated vacation pay from Northwest and up to 26 weeks of unemployment benefits.

Striking mechanic Joe Tramonte says he needs more information on the new proposal before deciding which way he'll vote. But he says he is pleased that the union leadership will put this proposal up for a vote so that striking workers can move on with their lives and other jobs.

"Right now the climate in Minnesota, most of the employers don't want to deal with you until you get a permanent decision on the strike. That way, it's been very hard. It's been hard to get a job, get retrained with the employers out there because they think there's a chance you're going to go back. That's one of the biggest hurdles that most of us have experienced," Tramonte said.

The deal is far less than the union leaders turned down just before the strike. That offer would have preserved about half of the union's jobs, and provided up to 26 weeks of severance for those laid off.

Northwest Airlines spokesperson Jennifer Bagdade says the company is pleased by the union leadership's decision to let members vote on the deal and hopes both sides can now move forward.

Industrial relations professor Mario Bognanno at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management says AMFA's decision is overdue.

"My sense is the union should've taken this step a month ago or even before that. My personal view was always that the union didn't do its job in terms of measuring the workers's interest in the matter. They should've put one of the earlier contracts up for a vote before the membership," according to Bognanno.

If the new deal is ratified, some may see the result as a nearly complete victory for Northwest, which kept flying despite a strike by a powerful labor group. But University of Minnesota industrial relations professor John Remington says that's not necessarily the case.

"At first blush it looks like Northwest prevailed in this one, but I don't think we can call it a win," he said. "I don't think we can evaluate that until Northwest emerges from bankruptcy -- if it does -- and what it looks like when it comes out.

Remington notes that Northwest must still reckon with its three other major unions in contract negotiations, and that another work stoppage could be possible as a result.

The mechanics union has yet to set a timetable for the vote that could end their work stoppage.