Northwest and Delta pilots have agreed to more than $1.2 billion in pay cuts over the last year and they're willing to give more. But talk of strikes this week from pilots at both bankrupt carriers signaled that they're running out of patience with demands to work for less.
Both carriers have continued flying while they reorganize in bankruptcy court, and a strike could kill them. Delta Air Lines Inc. called a strike a "murder-suicide" that would eliminate every job at the company. It also said a pilots' strike would be illegal.
Finances are precarious at both airlines - giving pilots more power than usual at the bargaining table. But pilots have more to lose, too, because their pensions would be reduced dramatically in a federal bailout if the airlines liquidate.
Mark McClain, chairman of the Northwest Airlines Corp. branch of the Air Line Pilots Association, agreed that pilot strikes at either carrier probably would be a murder-suicide. But that doesn't mean pilots wouldn't do it.
"Is it a real threat? Yes it is," McClain said on Friday.
The tough talk is a shift for both groups. Delta pilots have never struck. Northwest pilots have walked out five times since 1960, including in 1998, when McClain was on the negotiating committee. But more recently, Northwest pilots alone offered concessions while other workers resisted, agreeing to a 15 percent pay cut last year that saved the company $265 million a year. McClain even publicly called on other unions to do the same.
Northwest pilots are especially irked over the carrier's threat to start a subsidiary running smaller jets flown by pilots who would be paid much less than Northwest ALPA pilots.
"We've been championing the cause of saving Northwest Airlines, and management wants to pay us back by outsourcing a third of our jobs," McClain said.
He said pilots are college-educated, highly trained professionals who have already seen their wages rolled back to where they were 30 years ago. Northwest pilots now make between roughly $60,000 to $160,000 per year, the union said. First-year pilots make less, but they've all been laid off.
"Management seems to think that we'll do anything to get to fly airplanes, and that's a serious mistake and assumption on their part."
Northwest spokesman Kurt Ebenhoch said the Chapter 11 filing shows that the airline needs the labor cost savings.
Both airlines asked a judge for permission to throw out pilot contracts. Northwest pilots agreed to a temporary 24 percent pay cut to buy more time for negotiations. The extension runs out in mid-January.
A hearing on Delta's request to cancel its pilot contract will resume Nov. 28. The carrier's pilots have threatened to strike if that happens.
Delta pilots took a 32.5 percent pay cut last year, and the company wants another 19 percent now, said Kelly Collins, spokeswoman for the Delta unit of ALPA.
"We're in the mode of self-defense now that the (contract motion) has been filed against us," she said, "and we will use all legal means to defend our contract, and we will not willingly work without a contract."
A Delta spokesman did not immediately return a phone message from The Associated Press.
Legal experts said it's not clear whether the law would allow pilots to strike if their contracts are thrown out. Delta said it would ask a judge to halt a strike.
There have been close calls - most recently when ground workers at United Airlines threatened to strike if a bankruptcy judge threw out their contract. A deal averted a strike there.
"We've come to the brink of it several times in the past, but it's never actually come to fruition," said Neil Bernstein, a law professor who tracks airlines at Washington University in St. Louis.
He said unions have two choices when the airlines threaten to throw out their contracts in bankruptcy court.
"One is to say 'Pretty please don't do it.' The other is to say, 'If you do it you'll be sorry,'" he said. "I don't know a union that's ever said 'Pretty please.'"
Lowell Peterson, a bankruptcy attorney who has worked on airline cases, says he believes such a strike would be legal, though he agreed that it's not a settled question. With bankrupt employers pushing so hard for pay cuts, he predicted more walkouts.
"I wouldn't be surprised to see some strikes. Not because people really want to, but because there's nothing left," he said.
John Budd, a labor relations professor at the University of Minnesota who watches airlines closely, said unions chafe at the airlines' ability to have their contracts thrown out in bankruptcy court.
"That goes against everything unions worked toward and everything unions are about, which is negotiating and avoiding the unilateral imposition of terms. The talk about a strike reflects that frustration."
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