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Lawmakers, unions question Northwest

ST. PAUL - Northwest Airlines often does not fulfill promises, a key state senator said Wednesday, so lawmakers should not believe a pledge to retain most Minnesota jobs if the company becomes part of Delta Air Lines.

"Until Delta comes to the table and tells me that, I am not going to believe it - period," Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, said. "Especially from Northwest Airlines."

Even if a Delta executive shows up, as expected next week, Murphy said that he still may not believe the promises.

Murphy said he plans to hold a series of Senate Transportation Committee hearings in the next few months as details emerge about the planned Delta-Northwest merger.

Other senators and labor leaders joined Murphy in expressing doubts about Northwest's comments in the weeks since the merger was announced.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty said there are "positive aspects" to Northwest's public statements about keeping jobs in Minnesota, but said he is awaiting the airline's formal plan.

"We need commitments - legally binding, specific, measurable, objective commitments -- before we could weigh in on that," Pawlenty said. "We will fight for every job and we will hold Northwest Airlines to the covenants that they've made."

Even Northwest Vice President Ben Hirst, testifying at a Wednesday Senate hearing, suggested lawmakers talk to Delta officials to get answers to some of their questions.

Hirst said that most Northwest employees and customers will fare well.

"The primary beneficiaries of this merger will be our front-line employees and the communities we serve," Hirst told senators.

Most state Capitol attention focuses on the expected loss of company headquarters in suburban Eagan. About 1,000 jobs could be lost, but Hirst said those decisions have not been made.

Northwest officials all along have promised to keep most existing jobs in Minnesota, including 517 at a Chisholm reservations center.

Federal officials must approve the merger, expected in the coming months. It could take another year after the merger before Minnesota completely loses the headquarters, Hirst said.

When Delta and Northwest began discussing a merger, Hirst said, Delta had three requirements - the airline would be called Delta, the Delta chief executive officer would be in charge and Delta would remain headquartered in Atlanta.

"We weighed them carefully," Hirst said, but Northwest officials decided the best decision was to merge.

"The worst alternative for our employees and communities is to do nothing," he said.

In the early 1990s, Northwest received state help to obtain financing. In exchange, the airline promised to keep its headquarters in Minnesota, a major hub operation at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and to maintain 17,000 workers in the state.

"Northwest has met all its obligations," Hirst said.

But Murphy disputed that. The airline, for instance, has dropped to about 11,000 Minnesota employees.

Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, said he worries about reservation center workers, calling the center "the jewel of the airline." Hirst agreed, saying opening the center actually was his own idea.

"The Chisholm facility serves our elite customers," Hirst said, adding that Delta officials like the center.

Hirst said there is no intention to reduce rural air service or change the Chisholm center.

Tomassoni asked Hirst how many job loses Minnesota can expect.

"To a certain extent, I will have to defer to Delta," Hirst responded.

Union leaders who have tried to deal with the mostly non-union Northwest said they don't trust the airline.

"They also promised to continue to have at least 1,000 employees in Duluth but, instead, closed their facility in 2005," said Stephen Gordon of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

"They have left a trail of broken promises throughout the state, with still more to come," Gordon added.

If Northwest can't meet terms of the pact that gave the airline financial incentives, "then there's going to have to be some repayment of that," House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, said.

Kelliher said airline executives have said the merger could be good for jobs in Minnesota, but lawmakers are skeptical.

"We want to say back to them, 'Show us the jobs,'" Kelliher said during a Minnesota Public Radio interview. "Usually the history of these things is not quite so good."

State Capitol reporter Scott Wente contributed to this story.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.