Bush Blocks Northwest Strike

Friday, March 9th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON – President Bush today blocked a mechanics strike against Northwest Airlines for at least 60 days, saying he wanted to "protect the flying public" from the headaches of travel disruptions.

The president made clear that he was prepared to take similar action if other airlines and their unions fail to resolve contract disputes. "I intend to take the necessary steps to prevent airline strikes from happening this year," he said during an appearance in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Northwest mechanics had threatened to walk off the job at 12:01 a.m. Monday, when a 30-day cooling-off period expires, unless a contract was reached or Bush intervened.

"This order that I signed today will prevent any disruption of air service in the next 60 days," Bush said Friday, as negotiations between the nation's fourth-largest carrier and the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association continued.

The nation's three largest airlines, American, Delta and United, also are negotiating and strikes are threatened. "I'm concerned about their impact, concerned about what it could mean to this economy," Bush said.

The president urged the National Mediation Board to ensure that the parties negotiate in good faith.

"It's important for our economy but more important for the hardworking people of America to make sure air service is not disrupted," he said.

The presidential order is authorized by the Railway Labor Act, designed to protect the economy against transportation strikes, and must be requested by the National Mediation Board. Mediators made the request to Bush last month.

The presidentially appointed board, which will be established Monday, has 30 days to propose a settlement, and the parties get another 30 days to resolve the dispute. If that fails, Congress could impose a settlement.

Northwest Airlines officials did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

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

Bush's action "removes a sense of urgency to the negotiation process and will only delay us from being able to reach an equitable settlement with the company," said the union's national secretary, Steve Lanier. The union represents about 10,000 Northwest mechanics, cleaners and custodians.

Union and airline officials are bargaining in Washington and plan to continue through the weekend. They tentatively agreed Thursday on insurance benefits in what was called a "significant move forward," said Steve MacFarlane, president of the mechanics union local in Bloomington, Minn. Sticking points remaining in the dispute, which goes back 41/2 years, are wages, retirement and back pay, he said.

A presidential emergency board was ordered by former President Clinton in 1997, blocking an American Airlines pilots strike. Presidential intervention has been common in rail disputes, but rare for airlines; Clinton's was the first in decades.

But Bush made clear he would not hesitate to act in other ongoing airline disputes that could threaten this summer's travel.

Delta Air Lines pilots are threatening to strike if contract talks fail and they are released from negotiations. Pilots at Delta-owned Comair say they will strike if they remain without a contract on March 26.

United Airlines' flight attendants threaten a walkout if the airline completes its acquisition of US Airways without the union's approval. The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which represents almost 60,000 workers at United and US Airways, also opposes the merger. Those workers include 14,000 United mechanics now at a contract impasse.

At American Airlines, flight attendants have voted to strike next month if federal mediators release them from negotiations. American also is negotiating with its mechanics and ground workers.

In the Northwest dispute, the three mediators Bush appointed to his emergency board are:

–Robert O. Harris: A Maryland arbitrator and mediator who has led four such boards and also a special panel established by Congress to resolve a national railway labor dispute in 1991. He was a National Mediation Board member from 1979-80 and 1982-83.

–Richard R. Kasher: An arbitrator from Bryn Mawr, Pa., who serves on the arbitration boards of 15 employers, industries and unions. He has been chairman or a member of nine emergency boards in the past 16 years and general counsel of the National Mediation Board from 1971-75.

–Helen M. Witt: An arbitrator from Pittsburgh, Pa., she was National Mediation Board chairwoman from 1983-88 and a member of a presidential emergency board in 1997.