Trouble Brewing at Mesaba


Malko In Charge
Staff member
Impasse declared in Mesaba talks
Liz Fedor, Star Tribune Staff Writer

Published December 6, 2003 MESA06

The National Mediation Board on Friday declared contract talks at an impasse between Mesaba Airlines and its pilots union, and the board urged the parties to accept binding arbitration to reach a contract settlement.

When elected leaders of the Mesaba branch of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) meet Monday, they are expected to reject the offer of arbitration.

Kris Pierson, a Mesaba pilot and ALPA spokesman, said Friday that he anticipates the union's 12-member Master Executive Council to turn down the arbitration request, because Mesaba pilots voted overwhelmingly in favor of a strike authorization in October. Under binding arbitration, a neutral third party has the final say on unresolved issues from contract negotiations.

By rejecting the arbitration process, pilots would trigger a 30-day cooling-off period that would occur before a strike.

Strategically, pilots could return to the bargaining table during that 30-day period with the added leverage of a strike deadline.

Eagan-based Mesaba, which employs 844 pilots, flies regional flights for Northwest Airlines, and the union said that a strike would affect more than 600 daily flights. Mesaba serves 114 cities in 30 states and Canada, and flies out of Northwest's hubs in the Twin Cities, Detroit and Memphis.

The parties have been in contract talks since the middle of 2001, and the two sides failed to reach an agreement despite more than one year of help from a federal mediator.

When they opened a strike operations center this week, Mesaba pilots argued that their pay is substandard, their job security is threatened and they are working under a 1996 concessionary contract while negotiations drag on.

They emphasized that they want a contract, not a strike. But pilots also stressed they are prepared to strike, and they've set up a sophisticated strike operation that allows them to deploy pilots for strike-related picketing, communicate quickly with union members and monitor flying done by Northwest.

Mesaba spokesman Dave Jackson said executives are reviewing the mediation board's arbitration offer and the remaining open issues in the contract. "We have to find a solution that both sides will accept," Jackson said, adding that both parties made another attempt at negotiating during talks this week.

However, he acknowledged there was only "minor progress" at the sessions held Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

"On Wednesday and Thursday, there was zero progress," said ALPA's Pierson.

About two dozen contract issues remain open, and they include job security, compensation, retirement and work rules.