During a CHAOS strike, like the one Northwest Airlines flight attendants threatened to launch last week, there's very little actual striking.
CHAOS, an acronym for Create Havoc Around Our System, employs the threat of intermittent, unannounced work stoppages to apply pressure in contract negotiations, using tactics such as performing safety briefings but then walking off the flight. And if history is any guide, no one will stop working completely, if Northwest's flight attendants overcome a federal ruling temporarily halting the strike.
The labor technique, invented and trademarked by the Association of Flight Attendants, has little resemblance to the messy picket lines that were emblems of past labor strikes. Instead, the union creates uncertainty for the airlines and passengers, to win concessions on wages and work rules.
"It's the modern day form of real-time picketing," said airline industry consultant Robert Mann of R.W. Mann & Company Inc.
The union argues the 13-year history of CHAOS shows that the mere threat of a strike proves to be just as powerful as when workers actually walk off the job. While there have been seven CHAOS strikes - including the first against Alaska Airlines in 1993 - actual work stoppages or delays were used only against Alaska Airlines, and then affected just seven flights.
The flight attendants union designed the CHAOS technique to tamp down bookings by appealing to the fickleness of air travelers who would turn to other airlines if they fear a strike would disrupt their plans
An attorney for the union said they have created a new tool.
"We do think it's sort of a new era for labor," AFA General Counsel David Borer said. "CHAOS really starts to get directly at passengers' self-interest."
Northwest Airlines is the latest airline to feel the threat of CHAOS. Its 8,700 flight attendants had threatened to use it starting at 10 p.m. EDT on Friday, but hours before the deadline, U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero issued an injunction, stopping the strike until he could hear the airline's case. It would have been the first CHAOS strike against an airline operating under bankruptcy court protection.
In an effort to cut $1.4 billion in annual costs as part of its restructuring process, Northwest sought $195 million in cuts from flight attendants. The rest of the cost savings were achieved through concessions from labor unions representing pilots, baggage handlers, ground workers and clerical workers. Northwest mechanics provide a cautionary tale. They struck a year ago but gained little, and labor experts said the group has lost its leverage and many of its jobs.
In order to reopen negotiations with flight attendants, the fifth-biggest U.S. airline would be forced to unravel the agreements it has reached with the other groups, which would hamper its effort to emerge from bankruptcy.
In a roundabout way, the chief executive of Northwest Airlines Corp., Douglas Steenland, can thank the billionaire takeover specialist Carl Icahn for the labor dilemma the airline faces today.
In August 1985, by the time Icahn had won a dramatic boardroom fight to take over what was then Trans World Airlines, he faced the prospect of a flight attendants' strike.
Once flight attendants started striking in early March 1986, Icahn started replacing them. By mid-May, the union was advising flight attendants to return to work.
By July, about 5,000 of the original TWA flight attendants were jobless and demanding that Icahn rehire them.
"He basically busted the strike, busted the union, destroyed their contract and got away with it," Borer said at a Northwest bankruptcy court hearing on Aug. 9. "We looked at that and said we had to find a better way."
The AFA came up with CHAOS, what Borer called a "surgical way to put pressure on management."
The particulars of the Northwest case, however, make this CHAOS strike riskier than past ones, according to airline industry expert Jerry Glass of F&H Solutions Group, a consulting firm. He said that if flight attendants chose to shut down certain key hubs over a prolonged period, it could shut down the airline permanently.
"It's a very different situation when you threaten to use this tactic with an airline that is not at risk of going out of business," Glass said. "The fundamental problem in this case is that, if CHAOS is designed to bring the company back to the table so it lowers its financial requirements, in this particular case that strategy is not likely to be successful."
Glass said Northwest faces more meaningful obstacles than others in past CHAOS strikes. If the airline backs off the flight attendants' cuts, it must do the same for the other unions. After winning court approval, the company imposed new wage and work rules for flight attendants on Aug. 1. Glass said the interdependence of the deals decreases the chance of any new compromises.
Moreover, since the company is in bankruptcy, it is restricted by financing arrangements with lenders that could be jeopardized by a failure to reach cost saving targets set earlier. Glass said the company in fact could go back to court and seek more relief, such as permission to reduce its flight volume, thus cutting the size of its fleet and work force, including flight attendants.
The flight attendants at Northwest should use caution in their struggle, said Mann, the industry consultant.
"When you do this in a bankruptcy situation, when the company is already withstanding the stress of bankruptcy and scrutiny and costs that that produces, it's even more destructive," he said. "It's very destructive stuff, and it has to be used with very great care."
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