Northwest Seeks to Forestall Attendants' Strike

A federal today hears an application by Northwest Airlines to stop its flight attendants union from going on strike. The flight attendants could walk off the job as early as 10.01 p.m. ET. But any strike action is illegal, the company says — and could force it into liquidation. Robert Siegel talks to Minnesota Public Radio reporter Jeff Horwich.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

Today was a critical day in the conflict between one of the country's largest airlines and its flight attendants. A U.S. district judge granted Northwest Airlines' request to temporarily block a strike by flight attendants. Their union had threatened intermittent work stoppages starting tonight.

Northwest had appealed a ruling by its own bankruptcy judge, who last week said that the strike could go forward. It is the latest skirmish in a long battle that Northwest has waged to cut its labor costs by $1.5 billion. Northwest Airlines is based near St. Paul, Minnesota.

And Jeff Horwich of Minnesota Public Radio is with us. Jeff, first of all, what are the details of today's ruling?

JEFF HORWICH: Well, the judge did not rule on what is the big question here, which is essentially whether a strike is legal. What we have is a temporary injunction, which will give us what we gather at this point to be probably a few more days for the judge to consider the issues in the case. Basically the judge agreed with Northwest that a strike could cause grave financial harm and said that that was worth having everyone just back down, at least for the moment.

SIEGEL: How did Northwest and the flight attendants get to this point?

HORWICH: Now to make a long, ugly story somewhat short, Northwest declared bankruptcy in September. Since that time it has been trying to get $1.4 billion a year in labor cost savings. Now negotiators for flight attendants have twice reached deals on new contracts, but the flight attendance membership has voted those deals down.

So about one month ago, Northwest with the permission of its bankruptcy judge imposed wage and benefit cuts. Flight attendants say it's about a 40 percent cut to their take home pay. The airline does the math a little differently, says it's about 25 percent.

Flight attendants now are fond of pointing out that Northwest turned an operating profit in the most recent quarter, so they're saying basically the airline is really overreaching here.

SIEGEL: And are the flight attendants the only union that has not agreed to a new contract with the airline?

HORWICH: More or less. There are the pilots, which provided the bulk of the total savings, about $700 million a year. A group of workers known as ground workers, including bag handlers, reservations agents, that had a certain portion. The one sort of exception are the mechanics, who went on strike one year ago and never did get a deal there. They're still on strike, but the airline replaced them and got the labor savings that it wanted.

SIEGEL: So the flight attendants won the initial decision in bankruptcy court, but now another judge says he needs time to consider the airline's appeal. Why is this such a tricky legal question?

HORWICH: Well there are three areas of U.S. law that don't play very well together here. There's U.S. labor law that defines when a strike can happen. Flight attendants say having the airline unilaterally change their contract is a clear trigger of the right to strike.

There's U.S. bankruptcy law, which says the health and survival of the company is what's paramount, and that's Northwest's main point. And then there's a law from 1932, the Norris-LaGuardia Act. It says federal judges do not have the authority to block strikes except in some very narrow circumstances.

SIEGEL: Now what the flight attendants have threatened is not what most of us might think of as a strike when we hear the word. I want you to describe what it is they're talking about in the way of a job action.

HORWICH: Yeah, it's not a full on walkout. It's something the union calls CHAOS, an acronym for create havoc around our system. The union calls it a surgical technique. They might strike, say, just one city or one kind of aircraft at a time, or maybe the entire network for just an hour.

The idea is the airline is on its toes, doesn't have any idea where or when a strike is going to happen. It's very difficult to have replacement workers ready, and the main goal is financial pressure, leading consumers to book away because it's just so unpredictable.

SIEGEL: Jeff Horwich of Minnesota Public Radio. Thank you, Jeff.

HORWICH: Thank you, Robert.

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