Federal panel seeks NWA talks

  • Article by: LIZ FEDOR , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 15, 2006 - 12:22 AM

Mediators brought the airline and its flight attendants together in the hope that the sides can reach a concessionary deal.

The National Mediation Board (NMB) brought Northwest Airlines and its flight attendants union together Monday to discuss the status of their labor dispute, but no formal negotiations were scheduled.

Federal mediators spoke with the two sides during a teleconference. "While details of the discussion are confidential, the NMB remains active in helping the parties reach a consensual labor agreement," the federal board said in a prepared statement.

The flight attendants have rejected two tentative deals so far, although threats of a job action have been set aside temporarily as the airline and passengers cope with new luggage and screening restrictions imposed after a terror plot surfaced last week.

Separately, Northwest moved ahead with implementing the new ground workers contract, which includes outsourcing work in small stations to vendors.

The carrier plans to contract with several companies to do ground handling work, including regional partners Mesaba Airlines and Pinnacle Airlines, Northwest spokesman Roman Blahoski said, with the shift to vendors coming this fall and winter.

It's been two weeks since flight attendants rejected a tentative agreement that would have saved Northwest about $195 million a year. After the airline imposed work terms on the attendants, leaders of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) threatened to begin sporadic strikes as early as today. But the union's executive council decided Friday to delay any job actions until at least Aug. 25 because of the alleged terror plot in Britain.

"Flight attendants who have viewed the delay from a strategic point of view tend to understand the significance of doing that," Danny Campbell, interim vice president of the Northwest branch of AFA, said Monday. But Campbell said many attendants remain "very angry about the injustice they feel" about working under imposed terms and the depth of Northwest's concessionary demands.

A wait-and-see opportunity

Yet the AFA decision to postpone any strike activity had an immediate practical impact. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Allan Gropper has not issued a ruling concerning Northwest's motion to block a strike by attendants. With the new strike deadline an extra 10 days away, Gropper can wait to see whether the two sides can get back together again.

"We are open to meeting with the AFA to reach a consensual agreement that meets the $195 million [annual] labor savings target for the flight attendants," airline spokesman Bill Mellon said Monday.

Because Northwest is adhering to that concessionary target, Campbell said, "There is not a lot of maneuvering that we can do."

Although talks have not been restarted, Campbell said the two sides met face-to-face Monday afternoon in Bloomington.

The AFA was elected in early July to represent Northwest attendants, so the purpose of the session with airline management was to discuss several administrative matters, Campbell said.

Northwest has ratified agreements with five of its seven unions.

The carrier set work terms for flight attendants July 31, while replacement mechanics have been working under imposed pay rates and work rules since last August. Today, Northwest has its first bargaining session of the year scheduled with the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association.

Outsourcing at small stations

The airline's largest union, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM), ratified an agreement that allows Northwest to hire outside companies to do work at the stations that have the smallest number of flights.

Northwest's Blahoski said that 69 stations will be affected by the transition to outside contractors. Northwest employees in those cities are expected to use their seniority to transfer to the airline's larger locations, resign, retire or seek employment with the new vendors.

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