NEW YORK — A federal judge threw another lifeline to Northwest Airlines on Friday when he blocked flight attendants from striking anytime soon, citing the “vital role” that airlines play in the U.S. economy.
U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero overruled a bankruptcy court judge’s decision to let a strike occur.
He noted that Northwest carries 130,000 passengers a day on 1,200 flights and is the lone carrier for 23 U.S. cities and provides half of all airline service to another 20 cities.
“Congress has gone to extraordinary lengths to legislate its view of the vital role that these carriers play for the economy, national security, movement of goods and people, and general well-being of the United States,” Marrero said.
Northwest applauded the decision, and called for talks with representatives of about 7,300 active flight attendants. But the union promised an appeal and said it won’t negotiate unless it has the right to strike.
On Aug. 25, Marrero issued a temporary order stopping any strike actions, just hours before flight attendants had said they would begin unannounced, sporadic walkouts. Northwest, already operating under bankruptcy protection, had said a strike could kill it.
The flight attendants said they had a right to strike because the company on July 31 violated labor rules when it imposed pay cuts that they say amount to 40 percent cuts when combined with health insurance increases.
The nation’s fifth-largest airline, Northwest had obtained bankruptcy court approval for the move, aimed at saving $30 million a month from flight attendants, who have twice voted down tentative agreements.
Marrero said the bankruptcy court, in permitting a strike, had turned a provision of law — one that allows the airline to impose the cuts to save itself financially — into a “suicide weapon” that could trigger a strike that would drive it out of business anyway.
He said Congress enacted labor laws to specifically avoid disruptive labor disputes, and noted that it would be ironic if the two sides used such laws to ruin the company and eliminate jobs.
Marrero also said the flight attendants could someday strike, but only after all the negotiating processes had fully played out.
He said he did not believe the flight attendants had “sufficiently exerted every reasonable effort to settle the parties’ dispute without disruption to commerce or to Northwest’s operation.”
Association of Flight Attendants General Counsel David Borer said union members were frustrated.
“We’re dealing with a company that would rather litigate than negotiate,” he said, adding that a bankruptcy court ruling which permitted a strike was the correct one because employees have a right to strike when their working conditions are changed unfairly.
Borer said the union will eventually strike once the procedures of the Railway Labor Act are exhausted. Such a development would follow the declaration of an impasse by a mediator and a 30-day cooling-off period, among other things.
“Judge Marrero’s decision to grant Northwest the injunction allows our customers to continue to book Northwest Airlines with confidence, knowing that we will get them to their destinations reliably,” Northwest spokesman Kurt Ebenhoch said in a statement.
“While the court decision is reassuring to our customers, we remain committed to negotiating a consensual agreement with our flight attendants. We hope to accomplish that goal in the near future.”
As the strike fight bounces through the courts, flight attendants might lose some resolve, said Charles Craver, a labor law professor at George Washington University.
“When you really feel you’ve been treated badly, everybody’s excited, they’re ready to hit the picket line,” he said. “The longer it goes on, they’ll adjust to the new situation, and they’ll be thankful they have jobs.”
Neil Bernstein, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, predicted that even Northwest would not find the ruling a total victory.
“Northwest can look forward to the possibility of a very unhappy work crew, and customers that are not thrilled to pieces,” he said.
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