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Bush moves to stall strike by Northwest for 60 days

WASHINGTON — President Bush on Friday moved to block a mechanics strike against Northwest Airlines, sparing passengers the headaches of travel disruptions for at least two months.

Bush ordered a presidential emergency board to initiate a cooling-off period for 60 days. His action forestalls a strike at least until mid-May.

Speaking in Sioux Falls, S.D., Bush said Northwest and its mechanics need time to resolve contract disputes. "This order that I signed today will prevent any disruption of air service for the next 60 days," he said.

Negotiations between the nation's fourth-largest carrier and the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association were continuing Friday. A current 30-day cooling-off period ends at 12:01 a.m. EST Monday, and mechanics had said they would strike unless a contract was reached or Bush intervened.

Bush noted that several other airlines were in the midst of contract negotiations with their unions. "I'm concerned about their impact, concerned about what it could mean to this economy, and I intend to take the necessary steps to prevent airline strikes from happening this year," he said.

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

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

A presidentially appointed board would take 30 days to propose a settlement, and the parties would get another 30 days to resolve the dispute. If that fails, Congress could impose a settlement.

Northwest Airlines, based in Minneapolis, 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.

Union and airline officials have been in talks this week in Washington with the mediation board. 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 Minneapolis. Sticking points remaining in the dispute, which goes back 4 1/2 years, are wages, retirement and back pay, he said.

The union is demanding wages of up to $36 an hour for senior airline mechanics, up from the current $26.50 an hour, MacFarlane said. Northwest is offering $31 an hour. On retirement, the union wants $90 a month contributed, and Northwest has offered $75.

"If all sides are serious about getting this done before the deadline, I think it can be done," said MacFarlane, who expects negotiations to continue through the weekend.

Northwest spokesman Doug Killian would not discuss the status of negotiations Thursday but said the airline welcomes a presidential emergency board if an agreement is not reached.

The union, which represents about 10,000 Northwest mechanics, cleaners and custodians, opposes Bush's involvement.

"We feel any further delays would only remove any urgency put in place by the 30-day cooling-off period and would not significantly change negotiations," the union's national secretary, Steve Lanier, said.

Meanwhile, labor disputes at the nation's other big carriers — United, Delta and American — also could threaten this summer's travel and spur presidential intervention.

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. Among those workers are 14,000 United mechanics at a contract impasse. Despite federal mediation, the two sides have not met since Dec. 13.

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.