Northwest Attendants Send Union Get-Tough Message

June 8, 2006

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Northwest Airlines flight attendants who rejected a contract this week sent a message to their union: get tough with the carrier or clear the way for a union that will, airline experts said on Wednesday.

Members of the Professional Flight Attendants Association (PFAA) voted down a tentative contract on Tuesday that would have saved the airline USD$195 million annually while cutting flight attendants' pay by more than 20 percent.

The rejection by more than 80 percent of the voting members spoke of their displeasure with the proposal, but some analysts said it also reflected a lack of confidence in the PFAA.

Northwest's flight attendants begin voting on Thursday on whether to retain the PFAA or switch to the larger Association of Flight Attendants (AFA). Some members may have voted against the contract hoping to give AFA a shot at negotiations, said airline consultant Michael Boyd.

"They want to see whether another union can come in and negotiate something different," he said. "I think union turmoil and union uncertainty had much to do with (the rejection)."

But, he said, the airline was unlikely to yield more, regardless of which union does the negotiating.

Northwest, which filed for bankruptcy protection in September, has said it needs USD$1.4 billion in annual labor savings to survive. Most of Northwest's unionized workers have ratified labor deals that make concessions to the airline.

The carrier is also awaiting the results of a vote by a group of ground workers who rejected a proposal in March.

The flight attendants must decide whether they prefer the PFAA, representing only Northwest flight attendants, or deep-pocketed AFA, which represents more than 46,000 flight attendants at 20 airlines.

Simultaneously, workers will be asked to vote on whether to link the PFAA with the Transport Workers Union, a large organization that promises to provide the PFAA with more resources while allowing it to retain autonomy.

The PFAA insists that AFA could not have negotiated a better contract, but PFAA President Guy Meek said the competition between unions may have affected the ratification vote.

"A representation election at this period of time has been very divisive," Meek said. "I do believe it played a little into the outcome of the vote."

But Northwest flight attendant Shannon Wareham believed only a few workers rejected the contract on hopes AFA would get a chance to negotiate.

"The majority of flight attendants that voted 'no' would have voted 'no' whether there's another union or not," she said.

Joe Schwieterman, a transportation expert at DePaul University, said the result probably grew out of both mindsets. The workers are willing to gamble their jobs for a better contract and the rejection makes that point clearly, he said.

"They want to roll the dice, hoping that it accelerates the process of change," Schwieterman said. "They want to turn up the heat to the point that something dramatically changes in their work arrangements."

The airline has asked its bankruptcy judge to rule on its earlier request to void the existing contract so it can impose new terms. The PFAA has threatened to strike if Northwest imposes new terms.

Northwest said in May it would not resume talks and added in a court filing on Tuesday that the rejection indicated that "minor tweaks" would not lead to a different outcome.