NEW YORK — A federal judge blocked Northwest Airlines flight attendants from going on strike Friday, handing a victory to the airline just hours before a planned strike action that could have devastated the cash-strapped company.
U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero said he will issue an injunction to allow time for him to examine the case. He said Northwest Airlines Corp. made a “persuasive case” that a delay in any strike was necessary so that the legal issues could be resolved.
He said that while the injury to flight attendants would be to delay their ability to strike, “far greater injuries exist to Northwest and the public by permitting the strike to commence at this point.”
The flight attendants had planned to launch unannounced, sporadic walkouts anytime after 10 p.m. EDT Friday. Northwest, already operating under bankruptcy protection, has said a strike could kill it.
The nation’s fifth-largest airline, Northwest has about 7,300 active flight attendants. The workers are angry the company imposed 21 percent pay cuts, which they say amount to 40 percent when health insurance increases are added in, as well as work rules they had rejected.
Northwest has said it needs $195 million a year in savings from flight attendants, who have twice voted down tentative agreements. After the latest vote on July 31, Northwest imposed the pay cuts with the permission of a bankruptcy judge.
Marrero urged the parties to resume negotiations and said he will give them until Wednesday to tell him whether fruitful talks are possible. If not, he said, he will decide the case at a date that was hard to predict “given the complexity of this matter.”
The case involves obscure labor law provisions. A key question, however, is: Can airline employees walk off the job after management unilaterally cut their pay and changed their work rules?
In preparation for walkouts, the Association of Flight Attendants has said it has held classes to train its members on its “CHAOS” strike strategy, to “create havoc around our system.”
While the union has maintained that firing those who strike would be illegal, it is illegal under the injunction. There were no apparent plans among union members to do so until the judge has decided the case.
The Association of Flight Attendants said Marrero could make a final decision on an injunction as early as next week.
“Management and the courts can stall us, but they cannot defeat us,” said Mollie Reiley, interim president of the union’s Northwest branch, in a written statement.
She said the union would continue to prepare for job actions.
“Something is terribly wrong when a company that just made a quarterly operating profit of nearly $200 million continues to insist on the same cuts it demanded from flight attendants when it was losing money.”
“We are pleased with Judge Marreros decision to grant the preliminary injunction,” said Northwest President and Chief Executive Doug Steenland. “We remain committed to negotiating a consensual agreement with our flight attendants and hope to accomplish that goal in the near future.”
Northwest has said it has backup plans in case of a strike, but officials have not said if they have lined up replacement workers.
Northwest spokeswoman Julie Showers said the court’s ruling “will protect Northwest’s passengers and give the parties time to pursue a voluntary agreement.”
Even before Marrero had finished reading his ruling, more than a dozen flight attendants who watched the two-hour proceeding began to file out.
Flight attendant Lou Rudy asked outside court: “When does it end? When does the company have to negotiate? Now they can do whatever they want.”
He added: “We’ve gone as far as we can go. We have nowhere to go except to use our right to strike.”
Inside court, Northwest lawyer Brian Leitch said the company was ready to negotiate, but that the conditions of employment that were put in place in early August must remain the same.
“Those cows have left the barn,” he said.
The judge cautioned him that the company will have to be flexible, especially if he or an appeals court rules against it.
“Things have changed,” the judge warned Leitch.
In response, Leitch seemed to soften his language.
“Whatever meets our objective and the flight attendants’ objectives, we’re all for that,” he said.
Outside court, Edward Gilmartin, a lawyer for the flight attendants, said he was not optimistic.
“Nothing has happened to indicate they want to make a deal we’ll ratify,” he said. “I think they’re emboldened now.”
Sherry Eubanks, a union official, agreed and was pessimistic that there would be a breakthrough.
“Absolutely not,” she said. “I think the company has gotten what it wanted. They have it all.”
She said she was encouraged when the judge told Leitch that the company cannot be sure an adverse court ruling next week won’t make its current situation vanish.
“I loved when he said that,” Eubanks said. “It gives us a little hope.”
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