The cauldron that is Northwest Airlines labor relations will either boil over or continue on slow simmer depending on how a bankruptcy judge rules Friday .
If Judge Allen Gropper says Northwest may tear up its pilot and flight attendant contracts, the unions representing the groups have threatened to strike.
Northwest says the strike would be illegal under the Railway Labor Act and U.S. Bankruptcy Code. If the unions attempt to strike, "the company would seek an immediate injunction," said spokesman Kurt Ebenhoch.
The unions say neither Northwest nor the court can force them to work without contracts.
"This is still the United States, as much as others are trying to make it not be that," said Capt. Mark McClain, spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association. "You can't be forced to work under conditions you have not agreed to. If it comes to that, it would be a very sorry state of affairs."
Each side is testing the strength of its position in an area that has never been decided by a court, said Scott Smith, attorney with Fisher & Phillips in Atlanta with 20 years experience in rail and airline work.
"There is no precedent," Smith said. "But if the court authorizes that the contracts be abrogated, I agree with Northwest. A strike would be illegal under the Railway Labor Act."
Northwest's flight attendants and pilots began strike authorization votes Monday . The strike could begin as early as March 6 when the flight attendants count the results for vote.
The pilots will count votes Feb. 28.
What the sides often forget, says Dan Petree, dean of the College of Business at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, "is that the bankruptcy court is looking out for the interest of creditors first, not labor or management.
"Northwest Airlines is no longer master of its own fate because it has submitted itself to the supervision and authority of the court," Petree said. "Labor could say we didn't agree to this, but it is a moot point because their contract is with management."
If the unions do vote to strike, Terry Trippler at Cheapseats.com advises ticketholders to "drop back five and punt."
"The only rule Northwest has is that it must refund the unused portion of your ticket," Trippler said. "Will they try to rebook you? Absolutely. Will they be able to? Absolutely not."
Although at least a half-dozen U.S. airlines have filed for bankruptcy protection since 2001, no labor group has gone to the ultimate conclusion of actually striking in bankruptcy.
The Northwest and United Airlines cases may be the most similar because both companies sought to have their labor agreements terminated in court. United, which emerged from bankruptcy last month, was able to work out agreements with its unions and did not have to nullify its contracts.
The rules changed substantially in 1984 with Continental Airlines. Under the old law, companies in bankruptcy could reject their contracts without court approval.
Since then, the legality of an airline strike in bankruptcy has never been heard in court.
"No court is likely to enjoin a strike because it would utterly cripple air service into Memphis, Detroit and Minneapolis-St. Paul," Smith said. "The law doesn't favor that."
The purpose of Railway Labor Act, passed by Congress in 1926, is to avoid interruptions to U.S. commerce. Airlines were added in 1936.
When the trial opened Jan. 17 between Northwest and the two unions, Gropper advised both sides to work out consensual agreements.
A month and hundreds of hours of negotiations later, they're still fighting over pay cuts and the number of jobs the company can outsource.
"We are in a very complex area with lots of gray," said McClain, who says the strike date would be contingent on "what Northwest imposed on us and in what timeframe.
"Our goal has never been to go on strike. It's to get an acceptable agreement, and that's what we're working toward."
Northwest is asking the pilots to give $610 million-$620 million a year in total concessions. Through two cuts in the last 15 months, the group has given nearly $475 million back, McClain said.
"Northwest has moderated some on the amount of outsourcing, but the demand is still significant," he said. "It's fair to say both sides are engaged in serious bargaining. But due to the high volume of issues Northwest brought to the table - they want concessions in virtually all areas of the contract - it's going to take a while."
So far, a strike threat has barely registered with passengers, said Sandy Brewer at Carlson Wagonlit Travel.
"Strikes have become such a frequent thing, airline customers are getting used to it," she said. "They figure why wait, because if we wait, the strike might happen then.
"These threats are now part of our daily routine."
- Jane Roberts: 529-2512
If a strike happens:
Northwest will not continue to fly as it did last summer and fall when its mechanics went on strike.
Northwest is obligated to refund unused tickets.
It will try to rebook passengers on other carriers, but with most commercial planes flying 80 and 90 percent full, "some people are just not going to get where they are going," said Terry Trippler at Cheapseats.com
Pilot strike votes will be counted Feb. 28; votes from the flight attendants will be counted March 6.
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