Concern over job security in light of the proposed alliance with Continental Airlines has emerged as the key issue that could lead Northwest Airlines' pilots to strike from 29 August. The pilots' union says that, contrary to company statements, the dispute is about protecting jobs, not pay.

The Air Line Pilots Association (Alpa) says that job security has loomed large in the pilots' minds since Northwest announced plans to cement an alliance that ultimately involves the company taking a controlling interest in Continental. Alpa says the pilots are 'fully prepared' to strike. It is the first indication, since the flurry of US domestic alliance activity earlier this year, that union resistance could prove as troublesome to management alliance plans as regulatory intervention.

'The Continental alliance is causing great concern among the pilots,' says Northwest pilot and Alpa spokesman Hal Myers. 'While everyone agrees that the alliance could be a good thing, we want to be sure that, if it goes ahead, then as Continental grows so does Northwest. We don't want to see Northwest shrink while profits are ploughed into Continental.' Myers says pilots are concerned they could be transferred to Continental, which has lower rates of pay.

In what might be described as the mother of all union negotiations, the management at Northwest Airlines is in simultaneous talks with no fewer than six trade representation groups while also trying to stave off the pilots' strike.

Northwest's contracts with all of its unionised personnel become amendable at the same time. With the airline soundly profitable, agreements this time are proving elusive with the largest unions, including Alpa and the International Association of Machinists.

Northwest, which says that compensation is the key issue, is offering the pilots a pay deal that will bring them in line with the average pay of the three largest airlines - American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines. The company says Alpa is trying to force Northwest to set a new industry standard. 'We don't feel we can put ourselves out of line with our competitors. We will go for parity, but not leadership,' says Northwest. Alpa agrees it wants a higher offer, saying Northwest employees are more productive than their counterparts at other airlines.

At Air Canada, meanwhile, a contract dispute with its pilots' union, the Air Canada Pilots Association (Acpa), swiftly reached mediation. Talks with a government-appointed conciliator resumed on 10 August and, because of rules governing labour disputes, could continue for months. The airline is 'optimistic' the dispute will be resolved without disruption. The Acpa lists wages and working conditions as 'major issues' to be resolved. Ninety-seven per cent of pilots voted to strike.

Source: Airline Business