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Flight attendants reject new contract with Northwest

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Northwest flight attendant
Flight attendants at Northwest Airlines have rejected a second contract offer, which would have meant pay and benefit cuts to help Northwest emerge from bankruptcy protection.
Photo courtesy of Labor Notes

Flight attendants rejected the latest contract deal with a vote of 55 percent.  Negotiators for the airline and the flight attendants union reached the deal after a week of intense negotiations last month. They had gone back to the table after flight attendants overwhelmingly rejected a previous deal in June. 

While the union, the Assocation of Flight Attendants, negotiated some improvements upon the first failed agreement, it was not enough to swing the vote in favor.  

Flight attendants
Northwest flight attendants are threatening a random work stoppage action known as CHAOS. Flight attendants at Mesaba Airlines, who are also fighting contract concessions, are shown here alluding to the same possibility.
MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich

The contract still contained cuts of up to 40 percent in take-home pay.  And flight attendants remained upset at what they saw as insufficient profit-sharing provisions, and a sense that executives were not taking the same depth of cuts. 

"I think there's just a basic sense of injustice here," said Mollie Reiley, who heads the union at Northwest. "For some of these people it's as basic as -- if we agree to these terms, they can no longer afford their homes. They can no longer afford to stay in this job. And so I think for some of them the decision is, if my career is gone anyway, we might as well go down fighting."

Northwest flight attendants Tuesday morning are working under terms worse than those they just rejected.  Immediately following the vote result, Northwest unilaterally imposed the terms of the first agreement flight attendants turned down in June.  Northwest's bankruptcy judge had earlier given the carrier permission to do so.    

For some people it's as basic as -- if we agree to these terms, they can no longer afford their homes. They can no longer afford to stay in this job.

In a statement, Northwest said it must continue to move forward with its restructuring efforts.  

By imposing the contract, Northwest not only gets the $195 million in annual savings it demanded from flight attendants.  The move triggers another $800 million in contingent savings the airline had consensually negotiated with its pilots and groundworkers.

Northwest and the flight attendants union could be in court as early as Tuesday, arguing the unprecedented legal question of whether employees at a bankrupt airline have the legal right to strike.  

Northwest is expected to call for an injunction from its bankruptcy judge that would prevent any form of walkout. The AFA's international spokeswoman, Corey Caldwell, says the union's legal team is confident they'll be able to move ahead with random work stoppages -- known as CHAOS.

"We have been preparing for CHAOS since the AFA took over as the collective bargaining representative for the Northwest flight attendants.  We've done a lot of strategic planning and we're ready to go," said Caldwell.

University of Minnesota industrial relations professor John Budd is less confident in their chances -- though he concedes the question has never been tested in court.

"My prediction is that whatever type of work stoppage the flight attendants choose -- whether it's more of a conventional strike, or a rolling CHAOS-type strike strategy -- my guess is that a judge would find that to be it illegal," said Budd.

Northwest plane
Northwest Airlines immediately imposed contract cuts on the flight attendants, and both sides expect to go back to court in their ongoing dispute.
MPR file photo

Flight attendants are bound by an earlier agreement to give 15 days notice before staging any sort of strike.  That would give frequent flyers like Nancy Todd, passing through Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, some time to get used to the idea.

"In my market, which is the Midwest market, the best flights for me in terms of cost and time are Northwest Airlines, and I'd then be forced to take another airline. I wouldn't like that," said Todd.

Northwest trained a large roster of replacement flight attendants last fall, when flight attendants suggested they might strike in sympathy with the mechanics union.  It's not clear how many replacement flight attendants the airline still has on call.  A union spokeswoman says the kind of intermittent strike it plans is very difficult to cover for with replacements.

If Northwest can weather the strike threat, the airline can move on with securing financing and determining its flight plan post-bankruptcy.  

One large financing arrangement the company reached in recent weeks was partly contingent on obtaining the full package of labor cost cuts.  The airline is trying to keep to a schedule that would allow it to emerge from bankruptcy early next year.