updated 2/3/2006 2:30:58 PM ET 2006-02-03T19:30:58

Northwest Airlines pilots have given their union leader authority to conduct a strike ballot if there is no progress in negotiations over wage and benefit cuts the airline is seeking, the union head told a New York bankruptcy court Friday.

Mark McClain, chairman of the pilots union's master executive council, testified that employees do not want a strike but acrimony between the airline has grown "over time," with many workers resenting the company's charge that labor costs are at the root of the carrier's problems.

Eagan, Minn.-based Northwest Airlines Corp., which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in September, is looking for $1.4 billion in wage and benefit cuts from employees. It says it needs the cuts to emerge from bankruptcy and compete effectively with low cost carriers.

"We don't believe a strike is in the best interests of our customers, employees and the hundreds of communities we serve each day," Northwest spokesman Bill Mellon told The Associated Press. "We believe a strike by our unions would be illegal under bankruptcy law and the Railway Labor Act."

Mellon added that the carrier would seek an immediate court injunction against any attempted strike. Both sides have been in meetings "around the clock" to settle their differences, he said.

Likening the relationship between Northwest management and employees to a bad marriage, McClain testified in court that "People don't divorce over one issue. It is usually a series of wrongs over a long time."

McClain later told the AP that a resolution allowing him to conduct a strike ballot was passed unanimously by the union's 12-member master executive council Thursday evening. He said a vote by pilots could be conducted "at any time" and the ballot process takes 15 days. After 15 days, "a strike could be called within a few days," said McClain.

The judge overseeing the case, Allan Gropper, encouraged both sides to keep negotiating on Friday, the eighth day of hearings on Northwest's request to do away with its employee contracts.

"From my perspective, there has been a lot of progress," he said, adding that "there is still time for more progress."

Flight attendants, meanwhile, said they had received no response as of Friday from the carrier's management to an offer they made Tuesday to give up 1,553 jobs and accept a 22.5 percent pay cut.

"We have gotten to the point where we need to get a deal out to our members so the members can speak directly to the company," Karen Schultz, spokeswoman for the carrier's flight attendants said. She said the 1,553 cuts could come in the form of early an early retirement plan for senior and higher paid workers.

Northwest, which is Michigan's biggest passenger air carrier and has a hub at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, has asked for $195 million in concessions from its flight attendants. Schultz said the offer made by the union Tuesday would meet the airline's request.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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