Almost a year to the day after pilots struck Northwest Airlines, causing transportation chaos throughout the Midwest, flight attendants at the nation's fourth-largest airline have overwhelmingly rejected a tentative contract agreement, leaving the carrier faced with the prospect of another strike later this year.
The rejection was the latest in a series of potential labor disruptions facing the airline industry later in the year. US Airways mechanics were authorized yesterday to strike the carrier at 12:01 a.m. on Sept. 26 if agreement is not reached on a new contract. Flight attendants at American Airlines are voting on a tentative new contract amid a rank-and-file campaign to vote it down.
Of the nearly 9,000 Northwest flight attendants who voted, 69 percent opposed the agreement.
Northwest said it was disappointed by the rejection of the contract, which it called "fair and equitable." It said the offer provided Northwest's flight attendants parity with their counterparts at other airlines.
The price of Northwest's stock dropped 8 percent on the news of the rejection, though it later rose to close at $29.50 per share, down $2.43 3/4.
It was the first rejection of a major Teamster contract since James P. Hoffa became union president in March. The leaders of Teamster Local 2000, which represents Northwest's 11,000 flight attendants, were outspoken supporters of deposed President Ron Carey, Hoffa's predecessor.
Hoffa used the rejection to blame Carey for "allowing the talks to fester." In a statement released by the union late Thursday night after the ballots were counted, Hoffa said: "My administration inherited a bitter and complex situation with the Northwest Airline talks, but I am committed to taking on the tough challenge." He said he would continue to support the local's leadership.
Under the provisions of the National Railway Labor Act, which also governs labor relations in the airline industry, it could still be quite some time before Northwest's flight attendants could strike. Unlike mechanics at US Airways, who have been "released" by the government to strike if they want after a 30-day cooling-off period, the Northwest flight attendants cannot strike until the government lets them.
Federal mediators will now call the two sides back to the bargaining table to see whether agreement can again be reached on a new contract. If the mediators decide further talks are pointless, they would ask the parties to submit the dispute to arbitration. If either side rejected arbitration, the government would authorize a strike after a 30-day cooling-off period. There is no legal timetable for releasing the parties from mediation.
Northwest's flight attendants have been in negotiations for three years. At US Airways, talks went on for four years before a strike was authorized.
During this round of contract talks, there has been a major stumbling point at almost every bargaining table in the airline industry. Union members are demanding higher wages to make up for the wage concessions and pay freezes they agreed to earlier in the decade when the industry was losing billions of dollars. Since then, airlines have staged a major financial recovery.
The Teamsters said the tentative agreement rejected by the Northwest flight attendants called for average wage increases of 25 percent over the life of the five year contract and pension increases averaging 80 percent. The union said wages for attendants hired this year would have doubled over five years to $32.72 an hour and that all current employees would have received a 3.5 percent lump sum payment on all wages earned since August 1996. Current pay for Northwest flight attendants ranges from $15,000 to $59,000.