NWA ground workers prepare for bankruptcy court showdown

Bobby DePace: "We must walk the line together."

With negotiations apparently going nowhere, the future of more than 5,600 ground workers at Northwest Airlines could be in the hands of bankruptcy judge Allan Gropper on Monday.

Northwest is expected to ask Gropper to nullify the workers' union contracts, which would clear the way for the airline to impose whatever cuts in jobs, wages, benefits and work rules it wants – similar to what it did to mechanics last year.

The workers – baggage handlers, stock clerks, ramp workers and flight-simulator technicians – rejected a contract offer from Northwest in March. They also overwhelmingly authorized leadership of Machinists Air Transport District 143 to call a strike if Northwest imposes conditions.

Gropper, trying to avoid such a showdown, is giving both sides until May 15 to reach a consensual agreement.

But at a rally at the Eagles Club here Thursday, bargaining team member Kevin Graf said two days of bargaining this week were fruitless. "I've never met people who were more arrogant and obnoxious," he said of Northwest management representatives.

The quest for unity
"The next two weeks are so crucial," District 143 president Bobby DePace told the rally.

"We're not going to buckle to Northwest Airlines," said Ken Hooker, president of Machinists Local 1833, which represents Northwest ground workers in the Twin Cities. "We're not going to buckle to their greed.… This is our life. We need to do this in unison. We're going to keep fighting until we get what we want. "

Overall, Northwest is seeking $190 million in concessions from the two Machinists bargaining units that rejected the contract proposal, and from two other Machinists units of 7,700 workers who accepted the proposal.

Northwest's demands for concessions are extensive: an estimated 2,500 job cuts, an expansion of outsourcing and part-time jobs, wage cuts of at least 11.5 percent, cuts in health insurance, cuts in retirement benefits, cuts in paid vacations and holidays, cuts in premium pay, lower starting salaries, and widespread changes in work rules.

"You put this stuff together over 40 years," said Dick Tronstad, of Savage, a stock clerk with 29 years' service. "Now they just want to come in and snap it away."

Airline broke previous promises
"We all know we've got to give something," Tronstad said. But he's especially irritated that Northwest wants to take away 3 paid holidays, including Memorial Day. "I can't believe they're asking for that – a national holiday. I don't know how to describe it. Everybody in the United States celebrates the main national holidays – why are they doing that to us?"

Bryan Sejnoha, of Lakeville, an equipment service employee with 23 years at Northwest, said Northwest needs to do a better job on its wage proposals. Machinists members already have gone nearly four years without a pay raise. Since November, they have been trying to live with a 19 percent pay cut imposed by the bankruptcy court.

That has cost Sejnoha $4 an hour. Given that Northwest failed to pay ground workers more than $200 million in stock options it owes them from the airline's last bailout in the 1990s, Sejnoha isn't inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt this time.

"They stuck it to us, more or less," Sejnoha said. "They made promises that they didn't honor, let's put it that way. We can't hardly work with them with what they're offering." Northwest also has flatly refused to offer buyout options to veteran employees like Tronstad and Sejnoha, enticements they say could make a contract proposal more acceptable. "They said too many people are quitting already," Tronstad said.

The two Machinists bargaining units and the flight attendants are the only union groups left at Northwest that have yet to ratify concessionary agreements. Flight attendants are voting through June 6.

The Machinists plan informational picketing Monday outside Northwest's Eagan headquarters on Lone Oak Parkway. Picketing is planned from 10-11:30 a.m. and 3-4:30 p.m.

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    I appreciate the concise

    I appreciate the concise update on this complicated issue. I'm living overseas, but as a resident of Minnesota, I've tried to follow the machinist strike, and it's been difficult to get up-to-date information. This article was very helpful.