NWA and flight attendants hit tough compromises

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The flight attendants union says it scored a coup in fending off a proposal that it called outsourcing. Northwest repeatedly denied that it wanted to outsource flight attendant jobs. Instead, airline officials said they simply wanted to hire foreign nationals on some international flights to better meet the language needs of customers.

But the flight attendants viewed the proposal as grounds for a strike and garnered the support of politicians on Capitol Hill to lobby against it.

Guy Meek, the president of the Professional Flight Attendants Association, says the union's campaign against the so-called outsourcing proposal succeeded.

"I think really it became an albatross around Northwest's neck that the foreign national piece or foreign worker piece created so much negative momentum toward the company, because of so much feedback by us," he says.

Meek says the union's tentative deal with the airline not only protects against outsourcing; it also provides job security in the event of a merger. But Meek says the flight attendants are taking major hits in other areas. He wouldn't give specific numbers concerning pay reductions and job cuts before union members have a chance to see the proposed deal. But Meek stressed that the union was only able to achieve $195 million in concessions through some big sacrifices.

"It's not too easy to get to $195 million," Meek says. "So 2006 will be a real ugly year."

Northwest says it's pleased the tentative agreement will save the $195 million a year the company wanted. Northwest is trying to reduce its labor costs by $1.4 billion a year while in bankruptcy.

University of Minnesota professor of industrial relations John Budd says the flight attendants may have succeeded in sending a message throughout the industry that unions won't tolerate losing jobs to lower-paid foreign nationals. And he notes that the Professional Flight Attendants Association -- PFAA -- has probably also succeeded in snuffing out a rival union's effort to represent Northwest flight attendants.

But John Budd adds that it's false to characterize the flight attendants' deal with Northwest as an overwhelming victory for the union or for the company.

"Once you get to a bankruptcy situation, there aren't really any winners," Budd says. "So we are using the word victory in a very qualified sense. And the flight attendants are making very real sacrifices in terms of wages and benefits and vacation, sick days, and really everything."

And the company isn't necessarily in a position to celebrate, either. Northwest still hasn't wrapped up contract negotiations with its most powerful union-- the pilots. And in the meantime, the pilots voted to authorize their union's leadership to declare a strike if the company imposes employment terms without a deal.

According to travel expert Terry Trippler of cheapseats.com, that strike threat could scare customers away and hurt Northwest's bottom line.

"And that's why it's critical for everyone that this thing be settled as early as possible, so that people can make their plans. And if they want to buy a ticket on Northwest, they can do it, being relatively assured the airline's gonna be around and they're gonna be fine," he says.

Trippler says he's optimistic that all the unions' will eventually co-operate with the company and the strike threat will disappear.

On Wednesday evening a deadline passed for negotiations between Northwest and the pilots union. Attorneys for both sides held a conference call with the judge overseeing Northwest's bankruptcy to apprise him of where talks stand. The union says under the law Northwest could now technically impose pay and benefit cuts on the pilots. Union officials say they don't expect the company to do that without advance notice. The judge has scheduled another conference call Thursday night to review the progress of negotiations.

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