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Flight attendants announced on Tuesday that they'll conduct random, unannounced strikes beginning at 9:01 p.m. CDT on Aug. 15 unless Northwest backs off from the new contract it imposed on them on Monday.
updated 8/1/2006 6:15:17 PM ET 2006-08-01T22:15:17

The fight between Northwest Airlines Corp. and its flight attendants is about to turn into a fight between their lawyers.

Flight attendants announced on Tuesday that they'll conduct random, unannounced strikes beginning at 9:01 p.m. CDT on Aug. 15 unless Northwest backs off from the new contract it imposed on them on Monday after workers voted down a negotiated agreement.

But would a strike be legal?

The union says its workers can't be forced to work under terms they didn't agree to. Northwest says it had a judge's permission to impose those terms, and that any strike is barred by the Railway Labor Act, which governs airline labor. Bankruptcy and labor law experts agreed that the apparent contradiction between airline labor law and bankruptcy law hasn't been tested like this before.

Northwest has said it will seek a court order to stop a strike or any other job actions, although it hadn't done so as of Tuesday afternoon. Eagan-based Northwest, the nation's fifth-largest airline, filed such a motion earlier this year when the flight attendants' previous union threatened a strike, but the judge never acted on it.

"As far as we're concerned it's clear in the law that we have the right to strike, and we intend to exercise that right," said David Borer, the union's general counsel.

He acknowledged that the legality of an airline strike in these circumstances hasn't been tested. But he said Congress could have barred strikes in bankruptcy — and didn't.

That misses the point, said Anthony M. Sabino, an associate professor of law at St. John's University in New York and an expert on airline bankruptcies. For a strike to be effective, it has to hurt the airline. And Northwest is already hurting.

"There's a 50-50 chance any strike might be legal, it might be illegal," he said. "But who cares? Because if they walk, what matters is they stop flying and they may never start flying again."

As for whether flight attendants have any recourse when Northwest imposed terms on them, Sabino said that's why bankruptcy law aims to force unions and managers to negotiate new contracts.

"That's your recourse. You had it," he said.

Northwest twice negotiated new tentative agreements with its roughly 9,000 flight attendants, only to watch the rank and file vote them down. Flight attendants objected to the 21 percent cuts and major work rule changes, and questioned whether the airline needed the $195 million in yearly savings it was demanding.

In June, 80 percent of flight attendants voted down the first agreement, and then voted out their union.

The incoming Association of Flight Attendants quickly negotiated a tweaked version of the rejected contract, although the pay cuts were the same and Northwest still would have saved $195 million a year. Fifty-five percent of flight attendants rejected that deal on Monday. Northwest then imposed the harsher contract flight attendants rejected in June. Northwest spokesman Bill Mellon said bankruptcy Judge Allan Gropper had specifically given permission to impose that contract.

Douglas Baird, a law professor and bankruptcy expert at the University of Chicago, said Northwest is trying to have the best of both the bankruptcy code and the Railway Labor Act. He said the airline is essentially arguing that bankruptcy law lets them impose a new contract, and airline labor law forces employees to accept it.

"It's silly. Basically, we live in a country where you can't be made to work for somebody under terms and conditions you didn't agree to," he said. "That's why it's a free country."

"When you hear Northwest tell you that flight attendants have no right to strike, be very skeptical."

The AFA had previously threatened to strike as soon as Northwest imposed new terms. But on Monday it said it would abide by an agreement its predecessor union made to give a 15-day notice before any job action.

Danny Campbell, the interim vice president of the union's Northwest branch, said it will use the time to train flight attendants and compile a list of workers willing to engage in the surprise strikes that the union is threatening.

He said some flight attendants are anxious about what's coming. But he added, "I think that people voted on this knowing full well what the risks are, and some people have decided that it's worth the risk if they have to accept the terms of the company's imposed rules that in their opinion are not livable."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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