updated 5/22/2006 8:55:40 PM ET 2006-05-23T00:55:40

Northwest Airlines would be able to lay off roughly 700 ground workers under a tentative agreement with their union, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers said Monday.

The exact number of layoffs won't be known until the airline decides which positions to eliminate and workers decide whether to accept a company buyout, said Bobby De Pace, who runs the IAM branch that covers Northwest workers.

The airline made the deal with the IAM on Friday just hours before a bankruptcy judge was expected to decide if Northwest could reject that union contract outright. The union had threatened to strike if that happened.

Those ground workers will vote over a two-week period that would probably extend into mid-June, De Pace said Monday. Those same workers voted down a wage-cutting offer from Northwest in March.

Under the new pact, their wage cuts stay the same, 11.5 percent, and the proposal would still save Northwest $190 million a year.

Those employees are working under temporary pay cuts of 19 percent. IAM spokesman Joe Tiberi said that Northwest at one time sought to eliminate as many as 3,100 positions.

The agreement would cover roughly 5,600 Northwest workers who load baggage, move planes back from gates, and perform other ground work.

The new agreement allows Northwest to hire outside contractors to replace 492 ground workers outside its Minneapolis and Detroit hubs and a few other airports, and to replace 63 stock clerks outside those two hubs. It also permits Northwest to hire a contractor for catering at the Minneapolis hub, which involves 126 union jobs.

But the union said the new pact improved on the one they voted down in March, including the addition of better severance provisions, profit-sharing once Northwest exits bankruptcy, and a $181 million unsecured claim. Pilots won an $888 million unsecured claim in their own deal, which was ratified May 3.

Flight attendants are voting through June 6 on their tentative agreement. But Northwest has warned them that its offer will get worse, not better, if flight attendants vote down the current offer.

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