Pilots Might Stage Sympathy Strikes

The head of the Air Line Pilots Association International said Tuesday that his group not only will appeal the ruling that bars a strike at Mesaba Airlines, but will extend the labor conflict to other carriers if the appeal is successful.

"We are confident in the end that the court system will not permit this to stand," ALPA President Duane Woerth told the Star Tribune.

Woerth wouldn't specify which other pilot groups might be asked to back Mesaba workers through sympathy strikes in the event a walkout eventually is allowed. But the logical targets are Northwest Airlines, which provides all of Mesaba's business, and Pinnacle Airlines, another regional carrier for Northwest.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Gregory Kishel late Monday issued an order prohibiting any work stoppages at Mesaba. Unless negotiated deals are reached today, Mesaba spokeswoman Elizabeth Costello said, Mesaba intends to impose 17.5 percent labor-cost reductions on its pilots, flight attendants and mechanics on Thursday.

Woerth said he is optimistic that another judge will reverse Kishel and allow Mesaba employees to strike.

"Under the Railway Labor Act, secondary boycotts or sympathy strikes are legal," Woerth said, citing the fact that he asked Atlas Air pilots to engage in sympathy strikes last year after pilots at Polar Air Cargo, an Atlas subsidiary, went on strike. The rationale of such actions is to inflict wider pain on a company or its partners. Woerth said the secondary action helped Polar Air pilots negotiate a deal.

Union attorneys were preparing documents Tuesday to appeal Kishel's injunction. They also filed a notice of appeal on another recent Kishel ruling that allows Mesaba to void its contracts with the three unions. In September, U.S. District Judge Michael Davis reversed a similar ruling that Kishel made in July on nullifying Mesaba's labor contracts.

The unions also drew a contrast between how Kishel and the judge handling the Northwest bankruptcy case have ruled. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Allan Gropper denied Northwest's request for a strike injunction against its flight attendants. The unions believe Gropper's influence helped Northwest and its three largest unions reach tentative agreements. Mesaba has not negotiated agreements with its three largest unions.

"We, of course, respect the court's ruling," David Borer, general counsel for the Association of Flight Attendants, said Tuesday. "But if Judge Kishel had shown the finesse demonstrated by Judge Gropper, we'd all have agreements by now."

Borer pointed to comments Kishel made in court before he granted the motion to toss out the contracts and before granting the strike injunction.

"By so clearly signaling to the company that the court would rule in its favor, Judge Kishel destroyed any incentive management may have otherwise had to bargain with the unions," Borer said.

Last month, U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero granted Northwest an injunction prohibiting attendants from striking. Kishel cited some of Marrero's rationale in his ruling.

Costello said Tuesday that Mesaba is focused on saving the company and reaching deals with its workers.

"We are asking people to make sacrifices," she said. "We understand that [some] people are going to leave. We also understand that there are people who want to work here. This is and will be a good place to work if we are afforded the opportunity to restructure ourselves."

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