Unions prep for possible NWA merger

Northwest Airlines employees help a passenger check in at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport.
MPR Photo/Charlie Knutson

Employees at Northwest Airlines are quite concerned about how they will fare if the airline combines with Delta. Union leaders are letting those concerns be known. Pay, benefits, and even jobs could be at stake in a merger.

Many Northwest employees have been around long enough to recall how tough the merger of Northwest and Republic airlines was back in the mid-1980s. Those employees are still bitter about how the airline treated workers during that merger.

Northwest's pilots say they do not want a reprise of the the problems that came with the Republic deal. The pilots say they have made it clear to Northwest management that any merger this time will require the cooperation of pilots.

Pilot union spokesman Greg Rizzuto says pilots want something in return for their cooperation. Rizzuto says pilots figure it is time for Northwest to roll back deep pay and benefits cuts made in recent years.

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"For our pilot group to be enticed to go forward with a merger, contract repairs would have to be made," he says. "Equity stakes would have to be given of the new company. And, of course, we would have to agree the future company would be a viable productive entity for our pilots."

Rizzuto says pilots will want stock in a new combined airline.

It does not appear Northwest's unions would be positioned to legally strike over a merger. However, as Minnesotans well know, unhappy Northwest workers can readily find ways to cause trouble for the airline -- and its customers -- without striking.

Other unions at Northwest say their stance on a merger will also depend on what it means for workers.

Kevin Griffin is head of the flight attendants' union at Northwest. He says the membership is not opposed to a merger as long as it is handled fairly.

"I'm hoping they can take the necessary moves to make a unified workforce a happy workforce. A happy workforce delivers a happy product."

Griffin says one of members' top concerns is retaining union representation.

Most Delta workers are not unionized, except for the pilots. At Northwest, almost all employees are unionized.

That creates the potential for large number of unhappy workers, as they decide whether the union should stay or be booted out.

A merger of Northwest and Delta would force a union representation election for the two airlines' flight attendants, as well as ground workers and possibly other groups.

Organized labor has long failed to unionize Delta's roughly 13,000 flight attendants. They greatly outnumber Northwest's some 8,200 union flight attendants.

Stephen Gordon, president of the ground workers' union at Northwest, says his members could back a merger if it makes sense for them. But Gordon vows his union will fight a bad deal.

"If we're going to merge to have lower wages, no pension, we're not even interested," he says. "And we will fight on Capitol Hill. We'll fight against Wall Street to object to any sort of merger that would become disastrous for membership."

A merger with Delta could mean pay increases for Northwest workers. At this point, Delta's labor costs are about 7 percent higher than Northwest. Typically, in a merger, lower paid workers are eventually brought up to the pay rates of the better paying airline.

Analysts expect a combined airline would cut costs, especially by eliminating overlapping air routes. That would likely mean the airline would cut jobs.

"Let me tell you, it's not going to be a pretty year."

Airline consultant Darryl Jenkins expects a merger of Northwest and Delta would be a bloody affair. Jenkins estimates Northwest and Delta could cut their flying by about 15 percent domestically.

"It's going to be a very tough year," he says. "I've never seen labor relationships with airlines which are historically bad; as bad as they are currently. The war drums are already rumbling out there and it's going to get worse before the year's over."

Northwest and Delta continue to be mum about any merger discussions, but Northwest has acknowledged to Rep. Jim Oberstar that they are in talks with Delta.