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NWA flight attendants narrowly ratify pay cuts

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NWA flight attendant
A flight attendant for Northwest Airlines.
MPR Photo/Toni Randolph

Out of 5,828 ballots cast, the contract proposal passed by a margin of 104 votes. 

Northwest Airlines CEO Doug Steenland said the airline is pleased to reach a negotiated settlement with the flight attendants,  just a few days before Northwest exits bankruptcy. 

The flight attendants' contract ratification gives Northwest negotiated agreements now with all of its unions.  Those settlements are saving Northwest $1.4 billion a year through wage, benefit and other cuts.

This was the third flight attendant contract to be put to a vote in the past year or so. The first two went down to defeat, with the last barely missing approval by a few percentage points. 

"A very slim majority of our members have said today that this agreement represents the best we can do under the anti-worker conditions we found ourselves negotiating in."

Flight attendant union leader Will Wilcox says the ratification vote reflects the resolve of flight attendants to fight Northwest at the bargaining table in the future. 

"A very slim majority of our members have said today that this agreement represents the best we can do under the anti-worker conditions we found ourselves negotiating in," said Wilcox.

Wilcox noted that the union had been prohibited by the courts from striking or engaging in work slowdowns. And Wilcox said the union didn't get anywhere politically, either.

"We've run into judicial roadblocks," he said. "We've run into political roadblocks, and a Northwest management team who just wants to pocket all the money that's coming off our backs."

The contract will save Northwest $195 million a year and run into 2011.

Actually, Northwest already had the wage and other cuts it wanted from the flight attendants.  Last summer Northwest received court permission to impose a contract on the flight attendants. 

But the airline continued to try to reach a negotiated settlement, apparently hoping that would make for more labor peace at the airline --or at least less friction.

The flight attendants were expected to ratify the contract. Northwest had offered the carrot of a bankruptcy claim that could be converted to $182 million in cash.  That money would have disappeared Thursday, when Northwest leaves bankruptcy. So a no vote threatened to cost the flight attendants between $15,000 and $20,000 each.   University of Minnesota labor relations expert John Budd thinks recent news about executive compensation at the airline might have affected the vote.

"With the recent announcement of the stock grant to the executives and the frustration that was creating among rank-and-file members, I thought at that point, it became too close to call," Budd said.

Northwest CEO Doug Steenland could receive about $27 million in company stock if he stays with the airline. Other executives also stand to get big stock awards.

John Remington, another University of Minnesota labor relations expert, was not shocked by the vote's narrow margin.

"I think a majority felt this was better than nothing," Remington said. "But obviously, a very sizeable minority said, 'This is not an adequate contract. We're not willing to go backwards that far, and it's really not better than nothing.'"

The flight attendants union says the annual base pay for a flight attendant now ranges from about $15,000 to $33,000. The union complains attendants have been hit with wage and benefits cuts amounting to about 40 percent of their compensation. Northwest argues the cut has not been nearly that high.