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Northwest labor dispute may heat up in a hurry

One thing's for certain: Northwest Airlines Corp. and its flight attendants go before a bankruptcy judge Friday afternoon. Where the labor showdown heads after that is anybody's guess.
/ Source: The Associated Press

One thing’s for certain: Northwest Airlines Corp. and its flight attendants go before a bankruptcy judge Friday afternoon. Where the labor showdown heads after that is anybody’s guess.

The worst-case scenario would be a strike by Friday night. That’s considered unlikely, but not impossible. Or the airline could return to the bargaining table to make a new deal with flight attendants. Also unlikely, but not impossible.

In just a few days, the nation’s fifth-largest carrier has gone from being headed toward a relatively quick bankruptcy reorganization to the very real possibility of a strike.

On Tuesday, 80 percent of voting flight attendants rejected a tentative agreement that would have cut their pay 21 percent and changed their work rules dramatically. Ballots from the ground workers, who rejected an earlier tentative agreement, will be counted on Friday.

That means that by the time Northwest and the flight attendants go before New York Bankruptcy Judge Allan Gropper on Friday, they’ll know whether the flight attendants are the last holdout among Northwest’s six unions. Besides seeking an injunction against any strike, Northwest is asking Gropper to let it throw out the flight attendants’ contract and impose its own terms on them. The judge could:

  • Approve Northwest’s request. At that point, Northwest could impose its terms on flight attendants, although it might or might not do that right away. Northwest wouldn’t say.
  • Reject Northwest’s request. Bankruptcy judges in the cases of Delta Air Lines Inc. subsidiary Comair and Northwest feeder Mesaba Aviation Inc. both did this. The move would probably force Northwest back to the negotiating table with the flight attendants. This would be a huge setback to the carrier’s reorganization, because its deals with other unions don’t take effect until they all do.
  • Tell them that he’s not going to rule. In its court filing after Tuesday’s vote, Northwest said it “will be required to implement these changes soon if, for any reason, the Court were not inclined to issue its ruling.”

The Professional Flight Attendants Association has been pushing for new negotiations. But Northwest has said that further negotiations would be pointless because it’s not clear yet who they would be negotiating with. In the court filing the carrier said flight attendants began voting Thursday on whether to switch unions and law firms.

The airline has also said, with losses running at up to $30 million a month, it doesn’t have time to keep negotiating.

So, what if flight attendants decide to strike? Their union leaders have threatened — though not guaranteed — a strike if Northwest imposes its terms on them.

Northwest wouldn’t say whether it has prepared for a strike. Before its mechanics struck last August, it repeatedly and publicly asserted that it had lined up replacement workers and contractors to take the place of unionized mechanics. That strike failed, and the striking mechanics were eventually permanently replaced.

PFAA spokeswoman Karen Schultz said on Thursday that Northwest had lined up 500 replacement flight attendants last August in case they struck in sympathy with mechanics. But she said she didn’t know what happened to those replacement flight attendants, and Northwest spokesman Kurt Ebenhoch declined to comment.

The airline is also seeking an injunction to block a strike.

“We believe that a strike by our flight attendants would be illegal and not in the best interest of our customers, employees or the communities that we serve,” Ebenhoch said.

Airline union relations are governed by the Railway Labor Act, and it includes a drawn-out procedure before an airline union can strike. But airline unions have said the Railway Labor Act conflicts with bankruptcy law, and that they can’t be forced to work under an imposed contract.

They have a point, said David LeMay, a bankruptcy attorney at Chadbourne & Parke who worked on Continental Airlines’ bankruptcy in the early 1990s.

Leaving aside the particulars of the Railway Labor Act, “just as a fairness matter, you can see where the union would have a pretty strong argument,” he said.

“Bankruptcy judges, generally speaking, think that they have a lot of leeway to craft solutions that work,” LeMay said. But in this situation Gropper is basically limited to pushing for more talks, or ruling up or down on Northwest’s request to impose terms.