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Judge rules Northwest flight attendants can strike

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Mollie Reiley and David Borer.
Mollie Reiley, Northwest Association of Flight Attendants President, and AFA General Counsel David Borer, said Thursday they're pleased a judge has decided not to block the union's right to strike against Northwest Airlines.
MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich

It is the job of bankruptcy judge Allan Gropper to help Northwest survive. But in the end, Gropper concluded that even if a strike by flight attendants could cripple the airline, as Northwest has argued, he does not have the authority to stand in the way.

Officials with the Association of Flight Attendants were ecstatic.  Northwest union president Mollie Reiley teared up while speaking to reporters after the ruling, calling it a victory for labor across the country.  She said long-term damage to the airline was not an issue for the moment.

Northwest plane in flight
A Northwest Airlines plane in flight.
Photo courtesy of Northwest Airlines

"We'll address that, if and when we get there.  But today we at least have the right to defend our turf, and defend our jobs and our careers," said Reiley.

Flight attendants have twice rejected contract proposals that met the airline's goal of saving $195 million a year, saying the wage cuts and changes to work rules were too harsh.  

The airline imposed one of those contracts late last month. That prompted the call for a strike, and Northwest's request to the court to block it. 

Flight attendants hope the ruling will force Northwest back to the bargaining table with a more conciliatory attitude.  Reiley would not say whether the union wants Northwest to back off its $195 million number.  But she said to avert a strike, the airline would have to "come up with a better offer." 

Today we at least have the right to defend our turf, and defend our jobs and our careers.

"We know that Northwest is doing well.  They're doing much better than they anticipated," said Reiley. "Should the employees not benefit from that?"

Northwest operated at a profit from April to June, if bankruptcy expenses are factored out.

Northwest says it is appealing the ruling, in hopes of still receiving a temporary injunction before the strike deadline of Aug. 25.  

CEO Doug Steenland says in a statement the company would still prefer a negotiated agreement with flight attendants, but the company will not change its cost-savings target.  Steenland says Northwest and the union should work from their common goal of restoring the airline to good health.

Bill Hochmuth, an airline industry analyst with Thrivent Financial, sees room for compromise.  The last contract was only defeated with a 55 percent vote.  Hochmuth says a few modest changes to the terms might produce something a majority of flight attendants could live with.

"Hopefully there can be a win by the flight attendants, in that they can get some of the terms that they want, but a win by management that they get the economics they want," said Hochmuth.

Hochmuth says if the airline succeeds in its appeal of the ruling, it will buy both sides more time to talk. 

Clay Foushee is a Washington D.C. consutant who left Northwest in 2002 after 10 years there -- most of them as vice president of flight operations.  He believes after this ruling, airline management will be back at the bargaining table with a different approach.

"It's always cause for concern when an employee group has it within its power to stage some kind of labor action," said Foushee. "And certainly I think it will motivate them to sit down with the flight attendant union leadership and make some reasonable accommodations."

But Foushee thinks flight attendants, too, will cool off after the initial excitement of their win in court.

"As stressful as it is in the industry right now, and as much as they might feel like they want to exercise their power and their right to do some sort of labor action, at the same time they understand the dire straits that airlines particularly in Chapter 11 are in, and I think they're rational enough to understand the implications of doing something that could ultimately cost them their jobs," said Foushee.

For now, the Association of Flight Attendants says it is focused on strike preparation.  Leaders are not saying whether a strike will begin on Aug. 25 -- only that it might.  

AFA General Counsel David Borer says the union has used its strike technique, known as CHAOS, half a dozen times since inventing it in 1993.

"It involves intermittent strikes, possibly one flight at a time, one city at a time, possibly shutting down the whole system for 20 minutes or an hour.  The point of it is that the company won't know," said Borer. "And the passengers won't know, and the media won't know when and where and how we're going to strike.  And that's why we believe, in the end, the company will enter into an agreement with us."

Northwest says it has a range of contingency plans in place, and will take all measures necessary to continue its normal flight schedule.  

Northwest just last week warned its bankruptcy judge a strike could be fatal to the company.  But in a statement following the judge's ruling, CEO Doug Steenland says customers "can continue to book Northwest with confidence."