MINNEAPOLIS -- The union representing Northwest Airlines mechanics, cleaners and custodians asked airline management to return to the bargaining table on Monday but told workers to prepare for a strike vote March 2.
Northwest showed no sign of changing its position that it won't negotiate unless called by the National Mediation Board.
"We await any further direction from the NMB," said Northwest spokesman Jon Austin.
"The board isn't involved unless we ask them to be. My opinion is that we won't be doing that," said Steve MacFarlane, president of Local 33 of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association.
In an announcement on Local 33's telephone hot line Monday night, MacFarlane said the union is ready for direct talks with Northwest on 24 hours notice, without the board's involvement, but also was preparing for a walkout.
"A strike vote will be conducted systemwide on March 2nd," he told his members. "We will be announcing the location and times very soon. Please continue to prepare for a possible strike March 12th."
March 12 is the end of a 30-day cooling-off period that began Saturday.
The National Mediation Board declared talks between AMFA and Northwest at an impasse on Friday after nearly 100 days of mediation and began the 30-day countdown on Saturday. The two sides were about $2 billion to $2.5 billion apart on wages, retroactive pay and pensions.
However, the board angered AMFA by encouraging President Bush to consider naming an emergency board, a fact-finding panel that would make settlement recommendations. Bush said he would do that if no agreement is reached by March 12 -- delaying any work action for another 60 days.
"The president has the ability to twist everybody's arms some more, which could produce a settlement. But it doesn't guarantee one," said airline analyst Bradley Bartholomew, owner of The Newfoundland Group.
During a 15-day pilots strike in 1998, President Clinton sent Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater and White House deputy counsel Bruce Lindsey to pressure the sides to agreement.
If the parties are still at an impasse in mid-May, the union would be free to strike unless Congress got involved to keep workers on the job.
AMFA leaders criticized the president for making his intentions known before the cooling-off period had expired, saying the government was dictating the collective bargaining process.
"This has serious implications for not only AMFA, but all airline unions negotiating at this time. Even the threat of a presidential emergency board could force these other unions to accept substandard contracts," said O.V. Delle-Femine, AMFA national director.
The country's biggest carrier, United, also is in contract talks with its mechanics, No. 2 American Airlines is negotiating with flight attendants and No. 3 Delta Air Lines is in negotiations with its pilots.
Delle-Femine said appointment of an emergency board would remove any reason for Northwest, the fourth-largest carrier, to return to the table for serious negotiations.
"A presidential emergency board is certainly not to be viewed as a plus for labor," Bartholomew said.
However, a delay could hurt Northwest if no settlement is reached by mid-May as the busy summer travel season approaches. With that much time to plan ahead, people may choose to fly other carriers rather than risk having their plans disrupted by a strike.
March also is a busy travel period with students on spring break, but those reservations generally were made earlier so probably would have been less affected by customers switching to other airlines.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.