As the Northwest Airlines flight attendants union tries to negotiate a cost-cutting deal with the carrier by the end of next week, the group's members are determining the future of their union.
Until July 6, flight attendants at Detroit Metro Airport's largest carrier will decide if they want to join a new union, ending a bitter 9-month campaign to win over Northwest flight attendants as they trudge through one of the most vulnerable times in the profession's history.
The conflict at Northwest's attendants union is another example of the nation's fractured labor movement, which saw the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and six other unions split from the AFL-CIO last year. The split comes amid declining union membership and trying financial times for highly unionized sectors, where union leaders are posing wage cuts instead of raises to their members.
Negotiators with the Professional Flight Attendants Association, which represents 9,300 working and furloughed flight attendants, are trying to reign in just how far those cuts could go, after 80% of flight attendants rejected the deal the union sent to members in March.
As negotiations continue in Minneapolis today, flight attendants are deciding in two separate ballots if their union, the PFAA, should merge with the Transport Workers Union of America or join another union.
Union leaders support the merger option, which would align Northwest flight attendants with transit workers in New York and flight attendants at Southwest Airlines.
The other option is to leave the PFAA for the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents workers at United Airlines and US Airways, which both reorganized through Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
"We believe we have the experience and expertise to guide flight attendants through this corporate bankruptcy process," said Patricia Friend, the AFA's international president.
PFAA President Guy Meek countered that Northwest's flight attendant contract had little to cut compared to contracts at other carriers.
"We did not start at the same plateau," Meek said.
Danny Campbell, a former Teamsters union leader who approached Friend last August, worried that flight attendants would be headed for a strike like the carrier's mechanics.
PFAA spokeswoman Karen Schultz said union leaders understand that fear and that's why they want to merge with the TWU, which would ally the group with a larger union but still keep the PFAA's structure. Campbell and other critics of the PFAA say, however, the group's structure must change.
In the end, what will matter most is which group can negotiate a better contract with Northwest, said Gary Chaison, professor of management at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.
In a letter to the airline, the AFA said it would be ready to start negotiations as early as July 7, if the union is elected.
Northwest declined to comment on the letter. But in court filings the company has said new negotiations with the PFAA or another union could "sink into a quagmire of further indeterminate delay, resulting in many hundreds of millions of dollars of further losses ... "
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