Northwest, mechanics negotiators reach tentative contract agreement

Back when it mattered
Strikers man the picket line outside the Minneapolis - St. Paul airport in August 2005. The picket line has long since disappeared.
Photo by Cory Ryan/Getty Images

The deal gives 10 weeks' pay to mechanics and other union employees who decide to quit Northwest altogether. The strikers could choose instead to go on a recall list for jobs that open up at the airline. Anyone going on the recall list would get five weeks' pay.

After Northwest's mechanics, cleaners and custodians went on strike in August 2005, Northwest sent most of their work to outside vendors. The airline hired replacement workers to do aircraft maintenance work the company kept in-house.

Currently, Northwest has about 900 mechanics on its payroll. It has some cleaners or custodians in-house but didn't provide a headcount for them.

Union leader Jeff Mathews says members have signaled they want to end this battle with Northwest.

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"A lot of our members were telling us they wanted to move on," according to Mathews. "Both the union and company saw some mutual benefit in ending this labor dispute. So, it was time to see if we could put something to the membership they could vote on. If they want to end it, we'll end it."

Some 3,000 union members are eligible to vote on the proposed deal. Excluded from the vote, however, are mechanics currently working for Northwest. That's because they replaced strikers. Mathews says he expects some striking mechanics will want to return to Northwest, despite their long, bitter fight with airline.

"We know there is always attrition happening at Northwest, probably more so in Detroit than Minneapolis. It's conceivable that shortly after this would be ratified, that some people could start going back fairly soon after that," Mathews said.

Ironically, the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association -- AMFA -- is the legal bargaining agent for the replacement workers. In fact, the proposed deal brokered with Northwest includes a 1.5-percent pay raise for the mechanics currently on the airline's payroll.

University of Minnesota professor John Budd says the settlement allows AMFA to concentrate on its relationship to the workers it has branded as scabs, but also represents.

"If this does go through, it's probably going to be most significant for AMFA. AMFA can get down to business, trying to figure out what its future at Northwest is going to be," Budd said.

The settlement is welcome news to some strikers, whether or not they want to return to the airline.

Gary Gloppen, one of the mechanics still on strike, is looking forward to the settlement, even though he doesn't know if he wants to return to Northwest.

"I'm excited it can come to an end now. It's been much too long. It has not gone at all the way it was supposed to go. There should have been some negotiation, some settlement. And it seems for such a long period of time, we were a forgotten breed. It's exciting that will come to an end. I think it will. I think it will be voted in," Gloppen predicted.

Last month , a Minnesota Court of Appeals ruling said mechanics were eligible for unemployment payments. The Appeals Court concluded the 25-percent pay cuts Northwest imposed on mechanics constituted a lock-out, making them eligible for unemployment.

But union spokesman Jeff Mathews says he doesn't think the ruling helped produce the tentative contract settlement.

Northwest Airlines said it wants to reach negotiated cost-cutting agreements with all its unions. And the company says the tentative deal with the mechanics union is a step in that direction.

The airline is still trying to reach a settlement with its flight attendants.