By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 16, 2006
A federal judge yesterday blocked flight attendants at Northwest Airlines from striking over cuts in pay and benefits, ruling that such action could threaten the struggling carrier's comeback from bankruptcy protection.
In reversing a decision by a bankruptcy judge, U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero wrote that the flight attendants had not exhausted "every reasonable effort to settle disputes" and could not resort to strikes.
Marrero sent the case back to U.S. Bankruptcy Court. Northwest is trying to shed millions of dollars in labor costs and has said it expects to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection next year.
The union representing Northwest's 9,300 flight attendants said it would appeal Marrero's decision and continue to prepare for possible strikes and other actions. The attendants disputed the judge's assertion that they had not done everything they could to settle the dispute.
"I don't know what else he thinks we can do," said Mollie Reiley, head of Northwest's branch of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. "We are disappointed. But we're not going to let it defeat us."
Northwest executives applauded the judge's ruling. It "allows our customers to continue to book Northwest Airlines with confidence, knowing that we will get them to their destinations reliably," Douglas M. Steenland, the carrier's president and chief executive, said in a written statement.
Steenland said the airline remained "committed to negotiating a consensual agreement with our flight attendants." The two sides have not negotiated since July.
Northwest, the nation's fifth-largest carrier, filed for bankruptcy protection last year and has agreed with other unions to wage cuts of more than $1 billion a year. The airline has said it needs to cut its flight attendants' pay and benefits by $195 million.
Negotiators for the union reached an agreement with the airline in the summer, but the flight attendants voted it down 55 to 45 percent on July 31.
The airline then imposed conditions contained in an earlier proposed contract that the union said would cut wages and benefits by as much as 40 percent. The union quickly threatened to begin sporadic labor actions known as CHAOS, for "Create Havoc Around Our System." Those actions would include limited strikes at specific airports or on specific flights.
The airline went to bankruptcy court to forestall strikes, but Judge Allan L. Gropper denied the request, saying he did not have the authority to do so. The airline appealed Gropper's decision to Marrero, who had temporarily blocked a strike on Aug. 25.
In his ruling, issued in New York yesterday, Marrero wrote that Gropper erred in deciding that the union had made "every reasonable effort to settle disputes without resort to strikes." Northwest faced "irreparable harm" or liquidation if the union even threatened to take serious labor actions, he wrote.
The strikes would not only hurt the airline, Marrero wrote, but would also affect thousands of travelers in areas that are not served by other carriers. Northwest carries more than 130,000 passengers a day and is the only airline in 23 cities, the judge noted. Northwest has 46 flights out of the Washington area's three airports.
"In light of Northwest's prospects for reorganization and the impact on the traveling public, the hardships tip decidedly in favor of Northwest" if there is a strike, Marrero wrote.
He ordered the flight attendants to "maintain their normal working schedules" while the bankruptcy court conducts further hearings. He did not rule out the legality of strikes if further negotiations fail.