Machinists reach reluctant agreement with Northwest

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Union negotiators representing ground workers at Northwest Airlines are recommending a tentative contract agreement reached early Friday – not “because the terms are favorable, but because the alternative is worse.”

The agreement, announced at 1:30 a.m. by Machinists Air Transport District 143, covers 5,675 baggage handlers, stock clerks, ramp workers and flight-simulator technicians who rejected a similar concessionary proposal from the airline in March.

Though the tentative agreement makes “some improvements” over what members rejected, negotiators are recommending approval only “to avoid the elimination of our contract,” District 143 president Bobby DePace said Friday.

“We ain’t kidding anybody – this is terrible,” DePace said. “We’re extremely disappointed. It’s not right, it’s not fair, but that’s America today.”

The latest agreement came less than eight hours before bankruptcy judge Allan Gropper was expected to let Northwest “abrogate” the Machinists contract. That would have given the airline the green light to impose whatever cuts in jobs, wages, benefits and working conditions it wanted. With the tentative agreement, Gropper postponed any ruling on nullifying the contract until June 14.

Results of the ratification vote are likely to be known by then, DePace said. Workers will vote on the new proposal within the next three to four weeks, he said. Members also will be asked to grant strike authorization, as they did in March, if the proposal is rejected.

Early buyouts added
The latest agreement makes minor improvements in retirement language and will allow some workers to take voluntary buyouts, based on seniority, DePace said. The rejected proposal had “enhanced” severance packages only for workers who lose their jobs directly or get bumped by workers with more seniority.

The latest proposal likely will allow several hundred additional early buyouts, he said. “It all depends on how many people go and don’t go.”

The improvements themselves are unlikely to make much of a difference in how members vote, DePace said. “I don’t think it would be the improvements as much as they’re voting for their job.”

But, negotiators said in a statement: “With a bankruptcy judge set to rule on the abrogation of our contract, it would be irresponsible of us not to allow the membership to review and vote on the modified terms we negotiated. It is not in anyone’s best interests to have a judge decide our fate.”

Concessions remain unchanged
The tentative agreement is part of Northwest’s attempt to wring $190 million in concessions from its Machinists bargaining units, which include 7,700 customers service agents and clerical staff who ratified the earlier proposal. Among concessions:

• The loss or outsourcing of an estimated 2,500 jobs.
• Expanding the use of part-time workers.
• Cuts in base pay of 11.5 percent, cuts in shift differential and other premium pay categories, reduced starting salaries, and cuts in sick pay and holiday pay. That’s on top of the fact that Machinists members have not had a general pay raises since August 2002.
• Higher premium payments, deductibles, co-pays and out-of-pockets maximums on health insurance.
• A frozen pension plan.
• Eliminating three paid holidays and one week of paid vacation.

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