Many observers had expected the flight attendants contract vote to be close. The new contract would have cut wages by 21 percent. It included a number of other changes that would have cut the overall take-home pay of flight attendants by as much as 40 percent. Vacation time would drop by half, and 1,300 jobs would be eliminated.
Even though their negotiator had reached the deal, union leaders had declined to endorse it. Karen Schultz, a spokeswoman for the Professional Flight Attendants Association, says even they were caught off-guard by the margin of defeat.
"But we also think that it's a mandate from the flight attendants," she said. "We believe that it's a mandate that the company overreached, and its a mandate for us to go back to the negotiating table with the company."
Immediately after the vote result, Northwest did not sound anxious to return to the table. In a statement, the airline says it has already requested its New York bankruptcy judge allow it to throw out the flight attendants' contract and impose new terms of its own. The airline points out failing to get a deal with flight attendants will cost it $30 million a month, at a time when the company badly needs to reverse its financial slide.
Northwest says the negotiated agreement was reached in good faith, and represented the best chance to preserve flight attendant jobs.
But union spokeswoman Karen Schultz says flight attendants were put off by not just the depth, but the sheer audacity of many proposed cuts.
"Something we call 'ground time,' when you're sitting at a gate, and you have a maintenance delay at the gate, the flight attendants under this tentative agreement wouldn't have gotten paid. We consider that not only a pay issue, but a respect issue. Americans should never work for free," she said.
Flight attendants had earlier voted overwhelmingly to approve a strike should their leaders call for one. The union says it will strike if Northwest, with the court's permission, imposes its own terms.
Bankruptcy experts disagree on whether flight attendants would have the legal right to strike in that situation.
Despite the tough rhetoric, Thrivent Financial portfolio manager Bill Hochmuth is among those who believe the most likely outcome will be more talking.
"When both sides take a look at the situation, they have to realize that a consensual agreement is in the interest of everyone, including the passenger group at this point in time," according to Hochmuth. "I think that they're going to do everything they can to try and come to something consensual. Will it be quick? Possibly not, but I think that's in the interest of everybody."
University of Minnesota industrial relations professor John Budd says union members are taking a big risk by allowing Northwest to return to the judge who could open the door to more severe cuts than union members have rejected. But on the other hand "they might not be taking as much of a risk as we might think because my guess is most flight attendants sat down and looked at the details pretty carefully and decided that the terms were just so onerous and lousy that they couldn't afford to work at those terms, and they decided that their job wasn't really worth saving at that point," Budd said.
Budd says while flight attendants clearly disliked the contract, the vote is also an ominous outcome for the union, whose negotiators reached the deal. The Professional Flight Attendants Association faces a challenge from the Association of Flight Attendants. Northwest flight attendants will start voting Thursday on who will represent them in the future.
"I would take the 80 percent contract rejection vote as a big indictment against the flight attendants leadership," according to Budd, who says the rejection complicates Northwest's drive to emerge promptly from bankruptcy, and a new deal could be an uphill battle. But he also points out that in so many labor showdowns of the past, Northwest and its unions have most often worked things out.