Northwest Maintenance Workers on Strike Northwest Airlines mechanics and other maintenance workers are on strike. The carrier says it must cut more than $1 billion in yearly labor costs to avoid bankruptcy. The union won't accept the cuts. Northwest says it will hire temps. Jeff Horwich of Minnesota Public Radio reports.
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Northwest Maintenance Workers on Strike

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Northwest Maintenance Workers on Strike

Northwest Maintenance Workers on Strike

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

Coming up, conductor Daniel Barenboim promotes Arab-Israeli understanding through music with a concert tomorrow on the West Bank. But first, Northwest Airlines mechanics went out on strike today. Northwest says planes are taking to the air as usual thanks to legions of replacement workers. This is good news for travelers but not for union mechanics. We begin our coverage with a report from Minnesota Public Radio's Jeff Horwich.

JEFF HORWICH reporting:

The Northwest mechanics walked out immediately at the midnight strike deadline. Last-minute contract talks in Washington, DC, had ended with both sides in separate rooms watching the clock. The finacially troubled Northwest held fast to its demand to lay off about half of mechanics union members. It wanted those remaining to accept a 25 percent wage cut. The union says cuts on that scale are impossible to swallow. This morning, Northwest vice president of labor relations, Julie Showers, said service was not being affected.

Ms. JULIE SHOWERS (Vice President, Labor Relations, Northwest Airlines): Our focus is on our customers and avoiding any disruption to their travel plans, allowing them to maintain their confidence in the safety and reliability of Northwest aircraft. And each one of our employees out on the line is helping us do that.

HORWICH: Showers was referring to other Northwest workers, including flight attendants and baggage handlers, who might have walked out in sympathy, but no other union endorsed that course of action. The airline says it has not needed any of the 1,000 flight attendant replacements it trained as a contingency.

In Northwest's hub airports of Detroit, Minneapolis and Memphis this morning, 1,500 replacement mechanics were at work behind the scenes. At Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, Northwest employees calling themselves greeters were out in force to handle questions from nervous travelers, but the arrival and departure displays mostly read `on time.'

The mechanics union has warned of safety concerns brought on by replacement workers new to Northwest aircraft and procedures, but flyers like Kevin Fraley(ph) of Minneapolis were mostly just happy their plans weren't interrupted.

Mr. KEVIN FRALEY (Traveler): I'm not really too concerned about it, and it's unfortunate that the situation has occurred, but that's about it.

HORWICH: Another travel, Jean Martinson(ph), headed home to Rockville, Maryland, found the labor situation at Northwest depressing.

Ms. JEAN MARTINSON (Traveler): Just sorry that it turned out the way it did for the company, for the union.

HORWICH: Northwest says its contingency plan is working flawlessly, though the airline has declined to make its on-time performance statistics public during the strike. Mechanics contend, as they have for weeks, that sooner or later Northwest's schedule will suffer from the strike. Paul Kelly(ph), a 26-year veteran mechanic with the airline, was walking the picket line across from the terminal.

Mr. PAUL KELLY (Picketer): I really think it's going to get a whole lot worse than what the company's leading people to believe. I mean, they might be able to maintain their schedule for a few days, but as time goes on, the longer this goes, the longer the delays are going to be.

HORWICH: Mechanics also point out Northwest decided to switch today, one week early, to its fall schedule. This schedule is somewhat lighter. As the days go on, mechanics say the strike will be a test of whether the airline can really survive without them. No new talks are scheduled between the airline and its mechanics and many observers expect a protracted strike. Northwest says as time goes on, it may consider whether and how to make its temporary replacement work force a permanent one. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Horwich in St. Paul.

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