The Brancatelli File


A note to readers: The potential flight attendants strike at Northwest Airlines requires me to post news as it develops. Naturally, the most recent news items are at the top, so this column does read like a Pinter play: backward. -- Joe Brancatelli

September 21, 2006 -- As the Northwest Flight Attendants Dispute Turns…
Northwest Airlines dodged a bullet last week when a federal judge did the unthinkable: He required the carrier's flight attendants to work under the terms of a contract imposed upon them and told them they had no right to strike. U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero didn't phrase it that way, of course, but that was the net effect. Marrero went so far as to say that the flight attendants were bound by the mediation process of the Railway Labor Act, even though Northwest evaded its obligations under the law by getting bankruptcy-court approval to void a valid contract and unilaterally impose new wage, benefit and work rules. The flight attendants have appealed Marrero's ruling and have also asked the National Mediation Board (NMB) to declare the nonexistent negotiations at an impasse. The NMB has called a meeting of the two sides for Tuesday (September 26). If and when the NMB declares an impasse--Northwest Airlines has already said it will not negotiate changes to the $195 million worth of concessions it imposed on flight attendants in July--a 30-day cooling-off period would begin. And then the flight attendants would be able to strike.

September 14, 2006 -- Northwest Loses Two on the Labor Front
The Minnesota Court of Appeals has ruled in favor of striking mechanics at bankrupt Northwest Airlines. The mechanics struck the airline last summer after management unilaterally imposed huge pay and benefit cuts. The Court said an earlier ruling by an unemployment law judge was incorrect and decided that the unilateral contract terms constituted a lockout. The Court decision clears the way for the striking workers, who were permanently replaced last fall by Northwest, to receive unemployment benefits. … The decision might have some effect on the current fight between Northwest and its flight attendants. Northwest unilaterally imposed contract terms on the flight attendants earlier this summer. The flight attendants want to strike, but they await a decision from a federal judge, who has been silent since temporarily halting job actions on August 25. ... Meanwhile, one of Northwest's commuter carriers, bankrupt Mesaba Aviation, has also taken it on the chin from the courts. A federal judge in Minnesota today (September 14) overturned a bankruptcy court's ruling that permitted Mesaba to void the contract of its pilots, mechanics and flight attendants. In a written decision, Judge Michael Davis said Mesaba could not void the existing contracts because the carrier was refusing to negotiate key provisions of the new terms it had hoped to impose on its employees.

September 7, 2006 -- The Northwest Update: Paging Judge Marrero
Bankrupt Northwest Airlines and its flight attendants remain in legal limbo. Judge Victor Marrerro temporarily blocked a flight attendants strike on August 25, but he hasn't been heard from since. The two sides aren't talking, either. But that doesn't mean nothing is happening. Officials at Northwest claim flight attendants are calling in sick in record numbers. And the airline this week recalled all 1,131 flight attendants it had furloughed in recent years. You're allowed to think that Northwest is hoping that the furloughed flight attendants will take jobs that may be empty if the existing workers are allowed to strike.

August 30, 2006 -- Mars, Venus and Those Negotiations
Federal Judge Victor Marrero held a hearing-by-proxy today on the Northwest Airlines squabble with its flight attendants. As you'll recall, he temporarily delayed a flight attendants strike on Friday while he considered the legal complexities of the issue. He also urged both sides to talk, which they haven't. In a letter to Marerro, the flight attendants pointed out the obvious: Northwest has no need to talk while he has, however temporarily, barred a strike. "There is no reason to believe that the company would sit down and negotiate fairly after they have destroyed our contract, cut our wages and benefits by 40 percent, and attacked our right to strike," said Mollie Reiley, interim president of the Northwest branch of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA). "They would like us to return to the table while the injunction is in place and our hands are tied." For its part, and despite its claim to the contrary in a court session last week (see below), Northwest claims it is willing to talk: "Northwest stands ready, willing and able to continue negotiations with the AFA negotiators at this time and is prepared to return to the negotiating table at the earliest opportunity," its letter to Marerro said. Of course, as a judge in the Mesaba Airlines bankruptcy case realized earlier this year, what an airline considers negotiating doesn't much resemble actual negotiation. Northwest is sticking to its demand of $195 million in concessions from the flight attendants and has resisted any attempt to change it despite the rank-and-file voting down two contract proposals so far this year. And since Northwest has already imposed the $195 million in concessions, why should it budge while Marerro is stopping job actions? Marerro has not indicated when he would rule on the flight attendants' right to strike or the merits of the issues surrounding Northwest's demand that the flight attendants be required to work under the terms of a contract they specifically voted against.

August 25, 2006 -- Why Aren't We Surprised: Northwest Forgets Its Place in Court
U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero threw Northwest Airlines a break when he temporarily delayed a strike by flight attendants, who are fighting against the terms of a contract the airline unilaterally imposed last month. But despite some sympathetic comments about Northwest's legal arguments, it's clear that Marrero was shocked by the arrogance and attitude of Northwest and its lawyer, Brian Leitch. Throughout the hearing in a New York federal courtroom, Marrero urged both sides to reach a negotiated settlement. Leitch said Northwest was willing to negotiate, but wouldn't accept changes to the $195 million in concessions it unilaterally imposed on the flight attendants last month. "Those cows have left the barn," Leitch sneered. A stunned Marrero quickly put Leitch in his place. "Things have changed," the judge snapped back, warning Leitch that Northwest would have to negotiate seriously or suffer the consequences of a strike should he or an appeals court rule against the airline. Leitch then beat a hasty retreat. "Whatever meets our objective and the flight attendants' objectives, we're all for that," he responded.

August 25, 2006 -- Judge Puts the Brakes on a Strike--for Now
U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero has decided to put a temporary hold on any strike action by flight attendants at Northwest Airlines. Marrero did not rule on the merits of either Northwest's or the flight attendants' respective cases. He said he would issue a preliminary injunction to delay any job action so he could consider the issues. "The court," said Marrero, "believes time for consideration ... is essential. The court's rendering of a determination at this time would not be prudent." Marrero said he could rule at any time on the merits of the matter, but he indicated he wouldn't make a judgment any time before midweek. He also urged both sides to try to reach a consensual agreement. Northwest, of course, unilaterally imposed $195 million in concessions last month on the flight attendants.

August 24, 2006 -- Good for the Goose, Good for the Gander, Headed to the Supremes?
Northwest Airlines heads to a federal court in New York tomorrow hoping to stop its flight attendants from striking tomorrow night. Northwest couldn't get its own bankruptcy judge to intervene, but it hopes a federal court will rule differently. And now it has the support of the Justice Department, the same folks who haven't seen a wiretap they didn't like or a detention-without-charge situation they couldn't justify. According to its filing with the court, the government said a strike would violate the Railway Labor Act (RLA), the federal law that normally covers negotiations between airlines and labor unions. The RLA requires that both sides of an airline labor dispute be released from mediation before workers can take job actions. "Because Northwest and the [flight attendants union] remain bound by the provisions of the RLA, they must continue to negotiate as required by law. The [flight attendants union] is therefore not entitled to strike at this time." Interesting interpretation, that. Northwest Airlines didn't ask for a release from mediation before it ripped up a valid contract and unilaterally imposed new terms on the flight attendants on July 31. It used a bankruptcy-court ruling to supersede the RLA. Which means, of course, that the Justice Department believes what's good for the goose (Northwest imposing terms without a release from mediation) isn't good for the gander (the flight attendants using "self-help" measures without release from mediation). Bottom line: This matter is inevitably going to the Supreme Court on several interesting grounds: Can you force an employee to work under terms of a contract that he or she did not agree to? Can a bankruptcy-court judge allow an airline to unilaterally abrogate an existing labor agreement that was duly negotiated under the terms of the RLA? Can this federal court stop this strike, since the Norris-LaGuardia Act severely limits a federal court's jurisdiction in strike matters? And do airline employees have the right to strike immediately when an airline circumvents the RLA and breaks a contract?

August 23, 2006 -- Strike? There Might Be a Strike? No Kidding?
Looking for advice from Northwest Airlines in case the carrier's flight attendants begin job actions on Friday night? Well, don't look on The airline's Web Site not only doesn't offer any tips or suggestions, it doesn't even mention that a strike may happen. I guess that's what the airline's spokesboobs mean by passengers being able to "book with confidence." They're confident that bookings won't suffer if they keep travelers in the dark.

August 23, 2006 -- Home Is Where the Strike Is
The flight attendants union sent their negotiators home today. Since there haven't been any negotiations, there wasn't anything for them to do.

August 22, 2006 -- E-Mail Notification and Bad Taste From the Flight Attendants
Northwest's flight attendants, who say they will initiate unspecified job actions beginning at 10:01 p.m. on Friday, August 25, have created a Web site to communicate with Northwest customers. The site promises E-mail notifications and alerts about walkouts, strikes and other actions aimed at specific cities or routes. The flight attendants union has branded the job actions CHAOS (Create Havoc Around Our System). The E-mail system is fine for what it is--although the union doesn't promise substantial notice--but it's the site's "flash" introduction that is in really bad taste. The "CHAOS is coming" graphics look like a trailer for a B-movie. It even carries the cheesy tag line: Coming to an airport near you... I would have thought that the flight attendants more than anyone would know that a strike of any kind is not entertainment. It's amazing--and a bit disappointing--to find that an airline union is at least as stupid, insensitive and tin-eared as the airline management they are fighting. If you want to sign up for the notification, sign up by clicking here. If you want to subject yourself to the union's tasteless introduction, click here.

August 21, 2006 -- Don't Forget About Mesaba…
Travelers are logically focused on the battle between Northwest Airlines and its flight attendants, but don't take your eyes off the sideshow: the situation at bankrupt Mesaba, a large Northwest Airlink commuter carrier. Mesaba has convinced its own bankruptcy judge to allow the airline to void its contracts with pilots, mechanics and flight attendants. The airline hasn't done it yet, but that's not because Mesaba management is more sensitive than its big brothers at Northwest. It's because any unilateral contract changes are likely to cause a strike, since none of Mesaba's unions have agreed to the draconian concessions that the airline's management has demanded. Mesaba's bankruptcy-court judge has told the airline to give the unions 10 days' notice before imposing contract changes, so at least we will have some window to prepare for the worst. On the other hand, there have been virtually no negotiations between Mesaba and its unions for months now.

August 17, 2006 -- Northwest Bankruptcy Judge Won't Stop Flight Attendants Strike
Northwest Airlines' bankruptcy-court judge ruled today that he does not have the jurisdiction to stop or bar a strike by the airline's flight attendants. The ruling, which is frankly the only logical one when you consider that Americans are not required to work under conditions they didn't approve, is nevertheless something of a surprise. Bankrupt companies, and especially airlines, have generally gotten most of what they want from the judges in their cases. Not surprising is Northwest's reaction: It will immediately appeal the ruling and it claims that it "has a range of contingency options … to continue to operate its normal flight schedule." You will recall, of course, that Northwest claimed the same thing in the run-up to last year's mechanics strike. Then, when the strike hit, the airline began canceling waves of flights and delaying hundreds of others. Of course, all during the strike, the airline claimed operations were "normal." And, as we know, the airline today still has not returned to its pre-strike on-time performance.

August 11, 2006 -- Flight Attendants Delay Strike Deadline by Ten Days
After chaos in the skies yesterday due to the disclosure of a potential terrorist attack against flights departing from London's Heathrow Airport, Northwest Airlines' flight attendants have extended their strike deadline by ten days. The flight attendants' union now says it would delay any implementation of its CHAOS job actions until August 25 at 10:01 p.m. Eastern time. "Present security concerns take precedence over all other concerns at this time," said the union's interim president, Mollie Reiley. The world still awaits a ruling from Northwest bankruptcy judge Allan Gropper on the legality of a strike.

August 9, 2006 -- Labor Relations Via Frick and Ford
Northwest Airlines went in front of its bankruptcy court in New York today in an attempt to secure an unprecedented restraining order against a strike by its flight attendants. A strike "would clearly put us on the brink of collapse and in danger of liquidation," Julie Hagen Showers, Northwest's vice president of labor relations, testified. She told bankruptcy judge Allan Gropper that even sporadic strikes, which the flight attendants are threatening, would "clearly put [Northwest] on the brink of collapse and in danger of liquidation." She pleaded that in such circumstances, "we could not sustain ourselves. If we simply allowed it to happen, the company would liquidate." In other words, Northwest is adopting the defense of Ford at Red Rouge and Henry Clay Frick at Homestead Steel. A strike, Northwest claims, would be financially inconvenient, so it shouldn't be allowed. Adding insult to injury in this case, Northwest imposed the contract terms on its flight attendants after voiding a legally negotiated contract. Gropper, the judge who gave Northwest the right to void the old flight attendants contract, reserved decision on the injunction request. Which either means he's giving the two sides one more attempt to come to a consensual agreement--or he doesn't want to be the judge who turns the labor-management relations clock back a hundred years.

August 7, 2006 -- The Facts: Northwest's On-Time Performance Stinks. Period.
A couple of Northwest apologists have contacted me in recent days claiming that Northwest's on-time performance is back to normal after the disruptions caused by the mechanics strike last August. In point of actual fact, that is simply and provably incorrect. According to the Transportation Department's Air Travel Consumer Report (examine it for yourself by clicking here), Northwest is running far behind its historical on-time average. The DOT report says that Northwest ranked second among all carriers for on-time performance since the 1987 inception of the survey. Since the mechanics strike began last August, Northwest's on-time performance ranked 17th in the third quarter of 2005; 17th in the fourth quarter of last year; fifth in the first quarter of this year; and fourth in the second quarter of this year. At no time since last year's mechanics strike began has Northwest ever reached its previous on-time levels. And for the 12 months ended in June, Northwest ranks eleventh in on-time operations. Are we clear now?

August 3, 2006 -- A Quick 'Tick Tock' on the Northwest Mess
The story so far, in a sane, compact form. Northwest Airlines declared bankruptcy on September 14, 2005, and management promptly set out to slash $1.4 billion from its labor costs. It dumped its unionized mechanics, who had gone on strike the month before, by hiring replacements and outsourcing much of their work. Temporary, cost-cutting contracts were negotiated with other unions. After nasty tussles over the following months, Northwest management wrung concession-laden permanent contracts from its pilots and other unionized labor groups. But implementation of those concessions depended on Northwest obtaining $195 million in cost cuts from the airline's 9,000 flight attendants.

On March 1, Northwest and the Professional Flight Attendants Association (PFAA) negotiated a deal that opponents claimed would lead to 40 percent pay cuts. Despite bizarre threats from Northwest management, the flight attendants in June overwhelmingly rejected the contract. Then, in a previously scheduled vote, the flight attendants replaced the PFAA with the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA). While Northwest was negotiating with the new union, it obtained bankruptcy-court approval to dump the existing contract. In mid-July, however, the AFA struck a new deal, although its terms were almost identical to the earlier, rejected contract. Rank-and-file flight attendants voted down that deal on July 31 and Northwest unilaterally imposed new contract terms a few hours later. Honoring a pledge given by the PFAA, the AFA then gave Northwest 15 days notice of a strike or job action. Northwest wants its bankruptcy court to bar strike action and a hearing is set for August 9.

The issue of contracts is tricky in the airline business. They are governed by the Railway Labor Act (RLA), which states that contracts can be "amended," but never technically expire. Unions whose negotiated contract terms have concluded can strike only after the National Mediation Board declares an impasse and a federally mandated 30-day cooling-off period ends. But since Northwest's bankruptcy court allowed Northwest to scrape the terms of a valid contract and unilaterally impose new wage scales and work rules, isn't it Northwest that is in violation of the RLA? And wouldn't that free the flight attendants to strike? And since when in America can courts require employees to work under contract terms to which they have not agreed?

August 2, 2006 -- Northwest to Block, Please…
Northwest Airlines has asked its bankruptcy court to block a possible strike or job action by its flight attendants. Northwest claims that a strike or job action would be illegal under the terms of the Railway Labor Act, the law that regulates airline labor contracts. "The company would be irreparably damaged due to flight cancellations, disruptions in service, and the loss of consumer confidence," added Northwest in its filings. The judge, Allan Gropper, set a hearing for Wednesday, August 9.

August 1, 2006 -- Flight Attendants Start the 15-Day Strike Clock
The Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), which recently replaced another flight attendants union at Northwest Airlines, says that it will honor the predecessor union's 15-day notice pledge before striking. The AFA says it will not strike or implement any of its CHAOS (Create Havoc Around Our System) job actions before 10:01 p.m. EDT on August 15.

July 31, 2006 -- The Battle Is Joined
Northwest flight attendants voted against a tentative contract earlier today. This is the second time in the last few months that the rank-and-file of the flight attendants rejected new, concession-laded contracts. Those contracts, which would have replaced an existing and valid agreement, contained major givebacks and deep wage rules. Bankrupt Northwest promptly voided the existing contract, a right granted to it by the airline's bankruptcy court. The airline then imposed new contract terms that are roughly equivalent to the contracts that the flight attendants have rejected. Northwest's flight attendants union said this evening that it would implement a plan called CHAOS, which is an amorphous term for an organized, but unspecified and unannounced, series of protests, strikes and work stoppages. What's it mean for you? Frankly, who knows. It's not knowable how far the flight attendants will go to disrupt Northwest operations. It's not known how far Northwest will allow its service to deteriorate. But I suggest you book away from Northwest, at least through this week, until we can see how the situation develops. And if you must fly Northwest, DO NOT assume Northwest can or will "protect" you if a flight is cancelled.

July 20, 2006 -- Northwest Dodges at Least One Bullet--for Now
Bankrupt Northwest Airlines has at least temporarily avoided a strike by its flight attendants. The new flight attendants unions and Northwest came to a contract agreement this week, but the concession-laden deal still requires rank-and-file approval. Earlier this year, the flight attendants overwhelmingly rejected a contract loaded with givebacks and ousted the union that negotiated it. … The situation is at least as murky at bankrupt Mesaba, a Northwest Airlink commuter carrier. After initially rejecting management's request, Mesaba's bankruptcy judge last week said that the airline could void its contracts with pilots, mechanics and flight attendants. He told the airline that it must give 10 days notice to employees before dumping the contracts. Mesaba workers say they will strike if the airline voids contracts unilaterally.

July 13, 2006 -- Northwest Takes Up Permanent Residence on the Brink
The apparently endless battle between bankrupt Northwest Airlines and its flight attendants has taken several more twists and the current date to watch is Monday, July 17. That's when Northwest Airlines is legally free to impose a concession-laden contract on flight attendants. The flight attendants overwhelmingly rejected that contract in voting last month and last week they replaced their union. The new union, Association of Flight Attendants, says that it will strike systemwide or conduct local disruptions if Northwest unilaterally imposes the rejected contract. … Also clouding Northwest's future is the situation at bankrupt Mesaba, a large Airlink commuter carrier. Mesaba's bankruptcy-court judge in May refused to allow the airline to void its union contracts, but the airline appealed the ruling. All of Mesaba's major unions--pilots, mechanics and flight attendants--say they will strike if the judge changes his mind.

June 20, 2006 -- Just Another Northwest Deadline
Northwest faces a June 30 deadline to renegotiate a contract with its flight attendants. After that date, Northwest can impose terms unilaterally, but flight attendants have the right to strike 15 days later. Mesaba, a bankrupt Northwest Airlink carrier, has once again asked its bankruptcy-court judge for the right to void the contract of its pilots, flight attendants and mechanics. The judge, who previously rejected Mesaba's request, has set another hearing for Monday (June 26). Employees say they will strike if Mesaba is allowed to kill the existing contracts.

June 8, 2006 -- Northwest Airlines Heads Back to The Brink
Flight attendants at Northwest Airlines overwhelming rejected a concession-laden contract this week and that puts the bankrupt carrier right back at the brink of chaos. Northwest and the flight attendants will make their respective cases in front of the airline's bankruptcy court judge tomorrow afternoon (June 9). Northwest management will again press for the right to cancel the flight attendant's existing contract. The flight attendants say they will strike if the judge allows Northwest to cancel the contract or if Northwest unilaterally imposes new contract terms. For its part, Northwest management also wants something unprecedented: a restraining order barring flight attendants from striking even if the existing contract is cancelled and new terms are unilaterally imposed. And the flight attendants' own house is in disarray since voting has started on whether the existing union will be replaced. Meanwhile, all of Northwest's deals with other employee groups are on hold until and unless the flight attendants agree to new terms. What will happen is anyone's guess. Northwest, which last summer took a mechanics strike that has subsequently devastated its on-time performance, says it will not negotiate further with flight attendants. The flight attendants also seem determined: 80 percent rejected the new deal.

May 18, 2006 -- The Three-Front Labor War at Northwest Airlines
The American Customer Satisfaction Index survey released this week chose Northwest Airlines as the nation's worst carrier. That's just the beginning of the bad news: Northwest could face a strike on at least three fronts in the coming days. First up is a potential strike at Mesaba, a huge Northwest Airlink commuter carrier. A judge in Mesaba's bankruptcy case could rule as early as today on the airline's request to void its union contracts. The unions say they'll strike immediately if Mesaba's request is granted and the airline imposes its own terms. Meanwhile, Northwest itself was back in bankruptcy court this week trying to void the contract of its baggage handlers. The baggage handlers, represented by the International Association of Machinists, say they will strike if Northwest is allowed to void their contract and unilaterally impose working conditions and pay scales. Northwest probably wouldn't be able to operate if the baggage handlers walk. Finally, Northwest is squabbling with its flight attendants, who are voting on a concession-laden contract. Last Friday (May 12), the airline sent a nasty note to its flight attendants demanding that they ratify the deal, which contains about $195 million in cuts on top of a previously negotiated 20 percent pay cut. Flight attendants, who were outraged at the bizarre tenor of the Northwest note, will finish voting on June 6. (A 9 p.m. update: Mesaba's bankruptcy judge ruled on Thursday evening that the airline cannot void its union contracts. He ordered all parties to continue negotiations. That eliminates the threat of an immediate strike at the commuter carrier.)

Copyright © 1993-2006 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.