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Northwest keeps flying through strike
No new talks set as strike by mechanics at No. 4 airline fails to disrupt operations.
August 22, 2005: 6:26 AM EDT
By Chris Isidore, CNN/Money senior writer
Northwest Airlines management vows it will keep its planes flying despite the strike.
Northwest Airlines management vows it will keep its planes flying despite the strike.

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Mechanics at Northwest Airlines start their third day on the picket lines Monday, but without the support of pilots or flight attendants, the union's efforts to disrupt operations at the nation's No. 4 airline have so far been a failure.

No new talks are scheduled between management and the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Organization, which represents 4,400 mechanics at the Eagan, Minn.,-based airline. The carrier reported it operated its normal schedule over the weekend. CEO Doug Steenland told Reuters the plans to use replacement workers, outside contractors and management to service planes could keep its planes flying "foreseeable future"

The leadership of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association said it doubts that the No. 4 airline will be able to maintain a normal schedule on a prolonged basis.

"As time progresses, it'll get worse and they'll have more equipment on the ground," predicted Steve MacFarlane, the union's assistant national director, in comments shortly before the start of the strike.

One striking mechanic, who has worked for 18 years at Northwest and declined to be named, told Reuters that the impact of strike would be felt more heavily in 10 days or so.

"Then problems will start because the replacement workers they hired aren't as skilled as us," he said. "They won't be able to keep up with the work."

He added: "It used to be when I came to work Sunday morning, there would be one plane parked outside one of the maintenance hangars. This morning there were nine planes there."

But airline management said that the replacement workers have an average of 14 years' experience working on aircraft, and they are confident they will be able to maintain Northwest's fleet as normal.

AMFA's position weakened in the early moments of the strike when the leadership of the Air Line Pilots Associaion and the rank and file of the Professional Flight Attendants Association both voted against staging sympathy strikes. The pilots leadership said a sympathy strike was not in the interest of pilots

The mechanic union's statement blamed management for the strike, saying the final offer called for even harsher terms than earlier offers, including elimination of the jobs of more than half of the union members. It said the company's contigency plans to operate with replacement workers, formed over the last 18 months, are proof that the company's main goal is to bust the unions, not win cost reductions.

"Northwest wanted a strike and now they have one," said a statement from O.V. Delle-Femine, the union's national director.

In a statement, Northwest chief executive Doug Steenland defended the offer. "The Northwest final offer was fair to our employees while recognizing the need for equitable labor costs savings from all labor groups so that Northwest could restructure successfully."

Management had said it needs $176 million in labor cost savings from the mechanics union, as part of a target of $1.1 billion in total cost cuts it says it needs to stay out bankruptcy court. The union said it made an offer that would have saved the airline $176 million it sought, but without costing members their jobs. But management said the AMFA offer would only have saved about $100 million a year.

The airline has seen many other airlines win concession contracts from their unions, but so far the pilots union is the only Northwest union to agree to a concession deal. The initial failure of the mechanics strike to stop operations could put more pressure on other unions to agree to the concessions the carrier is seeking.

Northwest's example could lead the way for some of the nation's largest carriers to make even more drastic cost cuts than they have been able to win in the four years since the Sept. 11 attacks, making them more competitive with the lower-cost, low-fare carriers that have become the major force in the industry.

Some analysts raised their recommendation on Northwest stock in the past week, writing to clients that they believed management would be able to win a strike, giving it the leverage it needed to wrest concessions from its other unions as well. Northwest (Research) shares were not yet trading in pre-market trading Monday.

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