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NWA flight attendants to switch unions

Northwest Airlines flight attendants voted to switch unions on Thursday, just as talks with the airline enter what could be their final days.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Northwest Airlines flight attendants voted on Thursday to throw out their independent union and join the larger, stronger Association of Flight Attendants. But with Northwest free to impose new pay cuts and work rule changes on July 17, it may be too late for the new union to negotiate improvements.

Flight attendants voted 62 percent to 38 percent to drop the Professional Flight Attendants Association and join the AFA.

National Mediation Board rules call for it to certify the new union within one business day.

AFA spokeswoman Corey Caldwell said local councils have already been set up in nine cities where Northwest flies, and that elections would be held no later than October.

Northwest Airlines Corp. said it looks forward to working with the AFA and that it would meet with the new union “in the near future to determine how and when bargaining will proceed.” The AFA said a scheduling meeting was planned for Friday, and it hoped talks could begin Monday.

PFAA president Guy Meek promised to help the transition to the new union.

“While we are disappointed by today’s results, now is not the time for anger or division,” Meek said in a hot line message to members. “We must unite behind our new union, and together march forward to make certain that our careers at Northwest Airlines remain safe and secure.”

The AFA touted its negotiation experience in persuading Northwest flight attendants to join. Some have questioned why Northwest would negotiate at all now that it has won the power to impose a contract on flight attendants.

AFA-CWA International President Patricia Friend said, in her experience, reorganizing airlines that are seeking exit financing “really need labor peace.”

“They really would rather have a consensual agreement, just in the interest of having a settled work force, if not a jubilant work force,” she added. “But as we’ve seen, if that’s not possible, then they’ll take the reduction in labor costs however they can get them.”

The PFAA had said it had the right to strike if Northwest imposed terms on its members. Caldwell of the AFA said the same thing — but added that the union’s focus is on productive talks with Northwest.

The imposed contract would be the one that 80 percent of flight attendants rejected last month.

Aviation consultant Michael Boyd said Northwest has no incentive — and no time — to renegotiate large changes to that contract. He said Northwest might agree to small changes in the interest of building a relationship with a union it could be dealing with for a long time, though.

The vote ends the short, tumultuous life of the PFAA. It was formed in 2003 after flight attendants voted to drop the Teamsters, and it never won ratification for a contract it had negotiated.

It represented only Northwest’s 9,300 flight attendants, and couldn’t afford the in-house economists or lawyers that have become standard at larger unions. Beginning last fall it got that kind of help from the Transport Workers Union, which the PFAA sought to merge with after the AFA began seeking flight attendant support.

Hundreds of PFAA members declined to pay dues during a two-year period when Northwest refused to deduct dues from paychecks automatically. Eventually the union posted on its Web site a list of members who owed back dues. The National Mediation Board allowed those members to vote in Thursday’s election.

“The members really never had a voice,” said Mollie Reiley, a flight attendant who led the drive to bring in the AFA, and who was named acting president of the Master Executive Council of the AFA’s new Northwest branch. “PFAA didn’t end up to be what many people had hoped it could be.”

The AFA is the nation’s largest flight attendant union, with 53,000 members at 20 airlines once the addition of Northwest’s flight attendants is finalized.

“They’re going to have a lot more resources. But the contract doesn’t change,” because of the new union, Boyd said. “Northwest isn’t going to wait any longer.”

Northwest wants to cut $195 million in flight attendant costs as it restructures in bankruptcy court. Flight attendants are the last holdouts among its union workers.

Flight attendants had been scheduled to finish voting later on Thursday on whether to affiliate the PFAA with the Transport Workers Union, but that vote was made moot by the union switch.