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Bush Places Northwest Strike on Standby for 60 Days

Labor: Mechanics had threatened to walk off Monday. President says he is willing to intervene in disputes at other airlines.

March 10, 2001|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

MINNEAPOLIS — President Bush on Friday blocked any strike against Northwest Airlines for at least 60 days, citing the need to protect the economy and American travelers from flight disruptions.

The airline's mechanics had threatened to walk off the job at 12:01 a.m. EST Monday, when a 30-day cooling-off period expires, affecting flights across the United States and abroad.

The president's executive order, which came as negotiations continued in Washington with the help of federal mediators, establishes an emergency board that has 30 days to propose a settlement. The parties have another 30 days to resolve the dispute. If that fails, Congress could impose a settlement.

"I urge the National Mediation Board to make sure that the parties work toward a solution and negotiate in good faith," the president said during a visit to Sioux Falls, S.D.

"It's important for our economy, but, more important, it's important for the hard-working people of America to make sure air service is not disrupted."

Bush previously said that he would intervene to stop any strike at Northwest, and he added Friday that he is prepared to take similar action if other airlines and their unions fail to resolve contract disputes.

The nation's three largest airlines, AMR Corp.'s American, Delta Air Lines Inc. and UAL Corp.'s United, also are in the midst of contract negotiations, with strikes possible.

Northwest's mechanics, cleaners and custodians have been negotiating with Eagan, Minn.-based Northwest since October 1996. Talks broke off Feb. 9 over issues including wages, back pay and other benefits.

"Northwest is the first airline this year to reach a critical point in labor-management negotiations," Bush said.

"Several other negotiations involving other national carriers face deadlines within the next few weeks, and I am concerned about their impact, concerned about what it could mean to this economy. And I intend to take the necessary steps to prevent airline strikes from happening this year."

O.V. Delle-Femine, national director of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Assn., complained of Bush's action.

"We're very disappointed. What the president has done is stop the collective bargaining process. He's interfered with the free collective bargaining that we've had in this country for years. It's unprecedented. It's unwarranted," Delle-Femine said.

The mechanics union said it plans to continue the mediated talks through the weekend.

The airline welcomed the president's intervention.

"President Bush's appointment of a presidential emergency board ensures that our customers can continue to make their travel plans on Northwest Airlines with confidence," said Robert Brodin, Northwest's senior vice president for labor relations.

Northwest will accept the contract terms recommended by the emergency board if the parties do not reach a settlement before then, Brodin said.

The union wants wages of up to $36 an hour for senior airline mechanics, up from the current $26.50 an hour, said Steve MacFarlane, president of Local 33 of the mechanics union.

Northwest is offering $31 an hour.

Northwest carried 59 million passengers last year and has more than 2,600 daily flights, with major hubs at Detroit, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Memphis, Tenn., as well as Amsterdam and Tokyo.

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