Judge temporarily blocks Northwest flight attendants from going on strike

NWA passengers on line
Passengers wait to check in at the Northwest Airlines ticket counter at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport.
MPR Photo/Toni Randolph

The ruling is a victory for Northwest, but at this point just a temporary one. The bankrupt airline avoids, for at least a few days, a strike company officials say could jeopardize its survival.

In a statement, Northwest CEO Doug Steenland said he was pleased with the decision, and still hopes for a negotiated end to the conflict. He added that customers can continue to book Northwest with confidence.

NWA flight attendant
Tory Peterson is a flight attendant for Northwest Airlines.
MPR Photo/Toni Randolph

After a two-hour hearing, U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero did not rule on the major issue in the case -- whether a walkout by flight attendants would be legal. He issued a preliminary injunction to give himself more time to consider all the legal arguments before making a final ruling.

Northwest had appealed the case to Marrero after Northwest's bankruptcy judge ruled the flight attendants can legally strike.

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Mollie Reiley, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants at Northwest, says the union will respect the judge's temporary order.

"Of course there's some disappointment, but this is not a defeat by any means," Reiley said. "This judge is known to be a real scholar, and so I say let him take the time he's comfortable taking, to make, hopefully, a very good ruling and a favorable ruling for us."

Both of these groups are dancing on the edge of the cliff, and if they dance a little bit more, they're both going to tumble off into the abyss.

Judge Marrero urged the parties to get back to the bargaining table. He gave them until Wednesday to get back to him about whether fruitful talks are possible. If not, he said he would decide the case at a date that was hard to predict, "given the complexity of this matter."

Each side is arguing a different interpretation of a U.S. law called the Railway Labor Act. Northwest says the act requires mediated talks and a cooling-off period before a union can strike. The union says the act clearly allows an immediate strike when a company does what Northwest did one month ago.

With the permission of its bankruptcy judge, Northwest skipped that mediation process and unilaterally imposed wage and benefit cuts on the flight attendants.

Northwest argues any ruling must respect the paramount goal of the bankruptcy process -- to maintain the health of the company. But the judge must also take into account a 1932 law that bars federal judges from blocking strikes in most circumstances.

Anthony Sabino, a professor of bankruptcy law at St. John's University in New York, says Judge Marrero was "eminently reasonable" in giving himself more time to consider these intricacies. But he says the ones who need to do the serious thinking over the weekend are Northwest and its flight attendants.

Northwest Airlines ticket counter
A Northwest Airlines ticket agent at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport, August 25, 2006.
MPR Photo/Toni Randolph

"To be very frank, both of these groups are dancing on the edge of the cliff. And if they dance a little bit more, they're both going to tumble off into the abyss," Sabino said. "Northwest needs wage cuts to keep flying, that's a given. The AFA workers have a right to a wage that they can live with, because they have bills to pay. But there has got to be a middle ground. There has got to be room for compromise because it is mutual survival or mutual destruction."

At Minneapolis/St. Paul International airport, travelers welcomed the judge's decision. Patty Cook's son, Nick, was catching a flight from Minneapolis to Denver.

"He leaves today and he gets back the third of September," Cook said. "I was concerned that if there was a strike he wouldn't get back home, or it would be more inconvenient for him to get back home."

Flight attendant Tory Peterson, a 28-year Northwest veteran, says the ruling just delays a resolution to the dispute.

"It's just prolonging whatever's going to be the end result, and nobody has any idea what that end result is going to be," Peterson says.

The union has threatened a strategy of sporadic, seemingly random walkouts it calls CHAOS, for Create Havoc Around Our System. The union president says on the bright side, the judge's temporary order gives more time for all Northwest flight attendants to complete their CHAOS training.