As bankrupt Northwest Airlines gets ready to seek court-imposed wage cuts for its 10,000 flight attendants, yet another union is angling to represent them.
The Transport Workers Union has launched a formal campaign to oust the Professional Flight Attendants Association as the flight attendants' collective bargaining representative.
It will be jousting with the Association of Flight Attendants for that role. The AFA last month initiated its own campaign to give the PFAA the boot.
Meanwhile, there's speculation about other unions, notably the Teamsters and the International Association of Machinists, possibly wooing the flight attendants.
"Obviously, none of this is good for the flight attendants or the workers at large at NWA,'' said Peter Rachleff, a Macalester College professor of labor history. "They need unity of organization, unity of plan, unity of action, and even if any of these unions were 'better' than the PFAA this is not the time to be sowing the seeds of discord."
Northwest wants $195 million in annual wage and other labor-cost reductions from its flight attendants. To get there, the airline has proposed pay cuts of up to 20 percent, according to PFAA. Northwest's plan also calls for cutting 2,644 flight attendant jobs. That would be in addition to 1,400 layoffs announced in September, the union has said.
Northwest has signaled that it is within days of asking the judge overseeing its bankruptcy reorganization to set a deadline for the airline and its unions to negotiate giveback deals that would save the airline more than $1.2 billion a year. Northwest filed for bankruptcy Sept. 14.
It's expected that the judge would give management and labor about 60 days to nail down deals. If they don't, the judge could impose new contracts.
In a message to PFAA members on Friday, union President Guy Meek blasted the second "raid" on his union.
"For at least two AFL-CIO unions to announce competing raids on our membership in the midst of our contract negotiations and NWA's bankruptcy filing indicates less than pure motives that are not in the best interests of the NWA flight attendants," said Meek.
PFAA is not affiliated with the AFL-CIO. In fact, it ousted the Teamsters as the flight attendants' representative back in June 2003, with 4,587 members voting for PFAA and 3,916 for the Teamsters.
Those flight attendants who voted to bounce the Teamsters said that union's leaders bullied and ignored members.
The ouster came about a year after Teamsters international President James P. Hoffa put the flight attendants' local into trusteeship and replaced its leaders. He took that action because he believed they were not doing much to fight PFAA's attempt to get the flight attendants to dump the Teamsters.
The Teamsters contended the PFAA was an unproven dissident group that lacked the money, experience and union connections to fight hard-bargaining Northwest.
Those charges are now being voiced by supporters of the AFA and TWU.
AFA represents over 46,000 flight attendants at US Airways, United Airlines and 20 other carriers. TWU represents flight attendants at Southwest Airlines. That union attributes its success at Southwest, including an "industry-leading" contract, to its big-union connections.
"We could not have achieved these accomplishments without the support of both a strong international union and the AFL-CIO,'' TWU union leader Thom McDaniel wrote in a letter last week to Northwest flight attendants. "As a TWU member, you enjoy the solidarity of workers from the airline industry as well as the transit, railroad, and public utilities sectors of the labor movement."
On Monday, neither the AFA nor TWU could be reached to ascertain how successful they have been in getting representation cards signed.
For an organization to force an election among already unionized airline workers, the challenger must get a majority of workers to sign cards authorizing it to be their bargaining agent. An employee can sign authorization cards for more than one union.
Typically, getting the signatures required to get an election takes many months. And the National Mediation Board must verify the cards before calling an election.
Should two or more unions try to dethrone the PFAA, there would be many challenges about the validity of union representation cards, said John Budd, a professor of human resources at the University of Minnesota.
The union turmoil among flight attendants also might help Northwest make its case for a court-imposed contract.
"Northwest can go back to the judge and say, 'It's not our fault that there's turmoil among these unions,' " he said. "So, it might be easier for the bankruptcy judge to say, 'Yeah, it's a mess. So, I'll approve these cuts.' I doubt the judge will let the turmoil affect the creditors."
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