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Pilots Strike Forces Northwest To Temporarily Cancel Flights

By Frank Swoboda
The Washington Post

Northwest Airlines Saturday canceled all flights until at least mid week in the face of a pilots strike that may be just the the beginning of potential labor troubles for the nation's fourth-largest airline.

The airline announced it was canceling all of its 1,700 daily flights after more than 6,000 members of the Air Line Pilots Association walked off their jobs shortly after midnight Saturday in a dispute over a new labor contract.

Also canceled were hundreds of daily flights on Northwest's commuter operations that often provide the air link for thousands of small communities in the nation's mid-section.

Maggie Jacobsen, chairwoman of the National Mediation Board, who has been mediating the dispute, said she wanted to give both sides a few days to "reassess their positions." It is unlikely that there would be any new talks before mid-week.

The airline's labor troubles will move to a second front Monday when Northwest will have to answer a request by its largest union - the International Association of Machinists - that it be allowed by the National Mediation Board to strike in 30 days. The IAM represents 27,000 Northwest employees.

Northwest's 14,000 flight attendants also are involved in contract negotiations, but under the lengthy and cumbersome provisions of the Railway Labor Act which governs labor relations in the airline industry, they are a long way from being able to strike.

Under the Railway Labor Act, it is not uncommon for the negotiation process to last two years or longer before a union is free to strike.

In the meantime, the Department of Transportation and the National Economic Council have scheduled a Monday morning briefing at the White House to provide an assessment of the economic impact of the strike, according to administration officials.

President Clinton has refused to intervene in the Northwest dispute, saying the two sides should settle their differences themselves. But the White House has left the door open to future intervention if the strike isn't resolved quickly. Clinton could impose a 60-day cooling off period and send the strikers back to work while a special government panel makes recommendations for a settlement.

Northwest officials acknowledged that at least for the moment the strike has had much less of an impact than they had expected.