Northwest: Hearing at noon; strike by nightfall?

CHAOS class
Northwest flight attendants gathered on Thursday for strike training in Bloomington. The union's trademarked intermittent strike strategy is called "CHAOS."
MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich

This week, Northwest flight attendants have been going to school for "CHAOS." CHAOS -- which stands for "Create Havoc Around Our System" -- is the union's trademarked name for unannounced, sporadic work stoppages.

The Association of Flight Attendants hopes its strategy will force Northwest to back off the wage and benefit cuts it imposed almost a month ago.

"We are the only ones who are ... going to know."
Camilla Wolkerstorfer is the president of the flight attendants union local in the Twin Cities. She declined to say how or when the union would carry out its CHAOS strike strategy.
MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich

Dozens of flight attendants filled a conference room at the union's Bloomington office Thursday for a training session. During a brief look given to reporters, rows of men and women, many sporting CHAOS t-shirts, watched a video on the use of CHAOS at Alaska Airlines, where it was first applied in 1993.

Union leaders decline to say where or when they might act at Northwest, although they have offered last-minute e-mail notification for passengers. At the training session, Twin Cities local union president Camilla Wolkerstorfer wasn't giving anything away.

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"The deadline is Friday night. That doesn't mean we're going to have an event on Friday night. We could have an event in two weeks, we could have an event on Sunday. We're the only ones who are actually going to know that," said Wolkerstorfer.

Northwest officials have said a strike could be fatal. But on the eve of the strike deadline, the airline also says it has a contingency plan and expects to maintain its full schedule. The airline won't go into detail.

Flight attendants say no plan using replacement workers can be very effective, when the airline doesn't know where or when strikes will occur.

It's about bookings, it's about maintaining a steady cash stream while they're operating under Chapter 11.

Clay Foushee, a former vice president of flight operations for Northwest, says the airline could do what Alaska Airlines did -- and put replacements on every flight, just in case.

Foushee says the danger from CHAOS stems not from actually grounding flights; those may be very few. It's in the uncertainty felt by travelers, and the damage that can do to the finances of a bankrupt company if travelers avoid the carrier.

"It's about bookings, it's about maintaining a steady cash stream while they're operating under Chapter 11," Foushee says. "If there's an alternative way of traveling, I think many informed travelers are going to select that."

For that reason, Foushee thinks Northwest will make a very compelling case in court Friday when it argues a strike must be blocked.

While Northwest's bankruptcy judge agreed a strike would be harmful, he concluded U.S. labor law gave him no authority to block a strike in these circumstances. Northwest hopes U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero, who is considering the appeal, will reach a different conclusion or -- at the very least -- allow more time for the legal process to play out.

Marrero will have the opinion of the federal government to consider. This week the Department of Justice filed a brief supporting Northwest, saying the sides are obligated to keep negotiating.

David LeMay is a bankruptcy attorney for the firm Chadbourne and Parke, and represents a financial institution in the Northwest bankruptcy case. He says it's unusual for the government to weigh in on a case like this.

"Typically in injunction litigation, each side seeks to show the public interest is best served by its position," LeMay says. "Here we have the uncommon situation of the government -- whose whole job and raison d'etre is to think only about the public interest -- saying that granting the injunction is in the public interest."

The eventual outcome of this case will set a precedent in U.S. labor law. Ed Gilmartin will argue the flight attendant union's case in court. He says the union's victory in the initial decision gives Northwest little or no chance to win its appeal.

That decision, Gilmartin says, "is everything -- because (bankruptcy judge Allan Gropper's) decision is consistent with the law. Having the decision really makes it very hard for them to overcome that. Not only is he a well-respected judge, but he has been overseeing the Northwest bankruptcy for over a year now."

The flight attendants say they have no desire to drive Northwest out of business and lose their own jobs. They say the goal is to force more talks. Northwest says it's willing to talk. But given the conditions both sides have set, the only people talking Friday will be their lawyers in a New York courtroom.