Northwest flight attendants vote to switch unions

Northwest flight attendant
Flight attendants at Northwest Airlines have voted to switch unions, just as their contract talks with the airline reach a critical juncture.
Photo courtesy of Labor Notes

Negotiations between the flight attendants and the airline were scheduled for Friday. It was not immediately clear whether a negotiating team for the newly installed Association of Flight Attendants would be in place that quickly.

But that team is sure to be across the table from Northwest within days, trying to close a deal while still holding to their pledge to do better than those who came before.

"Flight attendants at Northwest Airlines have been looking forward to having a strong and united voice at their airline," says Kelly Norton, lead organizer with the AFA's international office, who led the campaign at Northwest. "And with the support of the largest flight attendant union in the world, they will now be able to emerge from this bankruptcy process with their careers and futures intact."

Northwest flight attendants cast a 62 percent vote in favor of the AFA's experience and clout. AFA's win comes soon after the rank and file overwhelmingly defeated a tentative contract negotiated by the ousted union, the Professional Flight Attendants Association.

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Yes, indeed, we would be taking a tougher stance. That would include considering CHAOS, if managment is not willing to work with us at the table.

A spokeswoman for the PFAA, Karen Schultz, says the transition will be smooth.

"We will be standing arm in arm with our fellow flight attendants, and we will be fighting under the new flag," says Schultz. "And we will be making sure that we get the best that we can from our contract."

Still, Schultz says the new union has set high expectations. Most critically, she says AFA organizers have left the impression they can reduce the $195 million in annual cost savings Northwest has demanded from the flight attendants group.

"We've heard, word of mouth, that they've made promises to flight attendants. I'm not sure I've seen literature, but a lot of flight attendants have reported to us that they've said they can do better," says Schultz.

The AFA says it has made no such direct promise, and that it will try "creative" ways the PFAA has not used in order to meet the airline's target.

Northwest has been adamant that it needs $195 million in cuts from the flight attendants. The airline put out only a short statement saying it looks forward to working with the AFA.

Though the new union may prove tougher at negotiations, University of Minnesota industrial relations professor John Remington says on balance, Northwest must be glad to have the election politics over with.

"I think getting it resolved is good for Northwest. I think one of the problems they've had in negotiations was there was an election coming up, and neither of the unions seeking support wanted to look anything but militant," says Remington.

Remington believes the AFA is capable of starting talks immediately. But with just days left on the negotiating calendar, he says outgoing and incoming union officials must work together. This includes continuing to work with members of the previous negotiating team.

"I think if they don't, it will be a disaster," says Remington. "It will only be harmful to the attendants if they don't try to heal whatever breaches were created very quickly, and come together in a common effort to get a new contract."

The AFA says it has a standing offer to PFAA officials to continue to be involved with the new union.

While the AFA says its goal is to get a deal with Northwest, lead organizer Kelly Norton says Northwest is obligated by law to negotiate. She says the airline can expect a more confident and experienced negotiating partner across the table.

"I would say yes, indeed, we would be taking a tougher stance. That would include considering CHAOS, if managment is not willing to work with us at the table," says Norton.

CHAOS stands for "Creating Havoc Around Our System." It's a form of partial strike invented and previously employed by the AFA. Rather than an all-out work stoppage, the key characteristic of CHAOS is unpredictability -- the target airline never knows which flight crews will show up, and when.

So while the unions may be changing among Northwest flight attendants, two potential outcomes remain the same -- a deal, or a potential strike. Northwest maintains a strike is illegal, and a court fight is likely before any walkout could occur.