Northwest Airlines will resume talks with striking mechanics on Thursday and demand steeper cuts than those that prompted the workers to walk out.
The announcement by both sides on Wednesday came one day after Northwest told the union it would begin hiring permanent replacements by Sept. 13 unless a deal was reached.
Northwest’s 4,427 mechanics, cleaners and custodians walked out on Aug. 20 rather than accept 25 percent pay cuts and layoffs of some 2,000 workers.
“Our last best offer which was presented to you on August 18 was based on economic circumstances that no longer exist today,” said a letter from Julie Hagen Showers, Northwest’s vice president for labor relations, sent to the union Tuesday night and released by the airline on Wednesday.
“While the Company was prepared to stand behind that offer in order to obtain a consensual agreement, unfortunately we are no longer able to do so,” she wrote.
The Northwest letter said striking mechanics have a legal right to return to any position for which they’re qualified, even those occupied by temporary replacement workers.
It said operations in its two largest hubs, Detroit and Minneapolis, are functioning smoothly with managers and temporary workers. But cleaning and custodial work, along with maintenance at spoke airports “have been permanently transferred to more efficient third party vendors,” the letter said.
Northwest had said it would outsource those jobs before the strike began. After it began, the carrier also handed some jobs done by mechanics, such as pushing airplanes back from the gate, to lower paid ground workers represented by the International Association of Machinists. The IAM represented mechanics before the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association convinced them to switch in 1998.
The letter to the union repeated claims the airline made last week that fuel costs have skyrocketed this year, and are expected to rise to $3.3 billion, up 50 percent from $2.2 billion last year. It said it will probably need labor savings above the $1.1 billion it had been seeking previously.
Union officials declined to respond to the letter. The union said 16 mechanics would be allowed to observe the talks, which were set to begin at noon in Minneapolis.
“I’m going to see what they’re going to say tomorrow at the table,” said O.V. Delle-Femine, AMFA’s national director.
With mechanics back at the table, Northwest is in talks with all of its major unions. Only the pilots have accepted a pay cut. But they said they’re ready to negotiate another one to keep Northwest out of bankruptcy, and held a preliminary meeting with the airline on Tuesday, with more talks expected soon. Mediated negotiations are continuing with flight attendants and other ground workers.
Shares in Eagan-based Northwest fell 22 cents, or 6.1 percent, to close at $3.37 on the Nasdaq Stock Market. They had dipped as low as $2.91 before rebounding after the talks were announced.
Northwest kept flying through the strike, although the number of late and canceled flights increased in the days immediately before and after the strike began. Around 80 percent of Northwest flights have been arriving on time during September, the company said.
Still, its on-time performance has lagged other carriers, according to an analysis done by FlightView for The Associated Press. From Aug. 25 to Tuesday, an average of 69 percent of Northwest flights were on time, versus 80 percent for other airlines.