Northwest strike talks fail over severance pay

Airline to start hiring permanent replacements

September 12, 2005|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

DETROIT - After three days of negotiations between Northwest Airlines Inc. and its mechanics' union, talks broke down yesterday over severance pay issues, prompting the union to leave the bargaining table with no deal and no talks scheduled.

Barring a last-minute settlement, Northwest plans to start hiring permanent replacement mechanics tomorrow.

That deadline, combined with the breakdown of negotiations, could further erode the union's momentum in the three-week-old strike, labor experts say.

Northwest has been able to maintain its operations with few noticeable disruptions.

Meanwhile, the carrier faces the task of maintaining what some experts say is a successful but fragile operation with replacement workers.

With the threat of bankruptcy lingering, Northwest says it must extract even more concessions from its unions to avoid filing for Chapter 11 protection from creditors.

If the failed negotiations with the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association are any indication, that could be difficult.

In a note to members, AMFA negotiators said talks fell apart on the issue of severance pay for the union's 3,181 mechanics, custodians and plane cleaners who wouldn't return to their jobs under the airline's latest proposal.

In all, the Eagan, Minn.-based airline asked the union to give up $203 million annually by eliminating more than 70 percent of its workforce - a deal that asks for more than what the union rejected more than three weeks ago when it struck.

"Our first inclination was to pack our bags and depart for our home stations," AMFA negotiator Jeff Mathews wrote to members yesterday.

But AMFA stayed and met the airline's demand to keep 1,080 mechanics in Detroit, Minneapolis and Duluth, Minn., eliminating 3,181 union jobs. The talks, however, fell apart when Northwest wouldn't bump up the period for severance pay from 16 weeks to 20 weeks, Mathews wrote.

"Northwest was unwilling to offer a severance package that we felt met the very minimal level that we needed to adequately compensate those who would be denied a position," Mathews told members.

The gap between Northwest and AMFA yesterday morning consisted of four weeks and $10 million, according to AMFA.

To striking Northwest mechanic Ruben Sosa, severance was the most important issue in these talks, and 16 weeks of it would have been a tough call.

"It would be nice to vote on something just to close this chapter of my life," said Sosa, 44, of Taylor, Mich. Next week he said he plans to visit Greensboro, N.C., where his wife has found a job as a mechanic, to see whether they would like to live there.

Harris Brown, 45, of Wyandotte, Mich., would rather wait.

"I really think the company is deteriorating from the inside and they need us a lot more than they're letting anybody know," said Brown, a Northwest mechanic for 16 years.

The latest round of talks started days after Northwest told the union last week that its financial situation is worsening, making its old offer too generous. That proposal demanded $176 million in annual cuts from the mechanics and eliminated 2,000 positions, or nearly half the mechanics' jobs.

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