Northwest Flight Attendants May Change Unions

The flight attendants at Northwest Airlines Inc. have an important choice to make in coming weeks.

Just as their employer is asking for massive wage and job cuts, there is a push among flight attendants to switch unions.

Some flight attendants are campaigning to leave the 2-year-old independent Professional Flight Attendants Association and join the Association of Flight Attendants, a decades-old union whose members and connections span the airline business.

"I don't think that our current union is prepared for the struggle that we have ahead of us," said David Barrow-West, a Northwest flight attendant for 28 years, who is leading the drive to collect enough signatures that would force a vote to choose between the two unions.

The PFAA, which represents 9,700 Northwest flight attendants, including more than 3,500 based at Detroit Metro Airport, contends that although it is young, the group is up to the job of negotiating with Northwest and must focus on talks instead of internal strife.

The conflict within the PFAA underscores the divisions within the U.S. labor movement that have already been tested by declining numbers, a bruised economy and corporations demanding more from workers.

Few industries feel the economic burden like the airline business. Battered by rising jet fuel prices and competition from smaller, more efficient carriers that keeps fares low, Northwest has lost $683 million during the first half of the year and expects to be down by more than $1 billion by the end of this month.

The Eagan, Minn.-based carrier is among four major airlines that are restructuring through bankruptcy, where a key target is labor costs, including wages, jobs and pensions.

Days after Northwest filed for bankruptcy the airline said it will cut 400 pilots in the next eight months and 1,400 flight attendants by January, including at least 480 jobs based at Metro Airport.

The airline, which carries the majority of passengers using Metro, wants another $195 millio in annual concessions from its flight attendants and in recent weeks has suggested outsourcing flight attendants' work on international flights as a way to cut costs.

These challenges make the call for new union representation troubling, said Peter Fiske, a member of the PFAA's executive board.

"At a time when we need to remain focused, build solidarity and have unity and deal with the business at hand, we have this raid," he said.

But Barrow-West argues the timing is equally crucial for those who want the AFA -- part of the Communications Workers of America and affiliated with the AFL-CIO -- to represent Northwest flight attendants.

"They're stronger. They're healthier. They're bigger. They have more resources. They have experience," said Barrow-West, a 50-year-old Hillsborough, N.C., resident who was a union leader when the International Brotherhood of Teamsters represented the flight attendants. In 2003, the PFAA ousted the Teamsters as the flight attendants' union. Barrow-West asked the Teamsters to represent Northwest flight attendants again recently, but the union declined.

With the challenges that the flight attendants face, the lack of confidence that some of them have in their current union is natural, said John Budd, professor of human resources at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota.

That uncertainty is acute for flight attendants who watched Northwest replace 4,400 union mechanics when they went on strike Aug. 20 after refusing to take pay cuts of at least 25% and slash nearly half of their workforce.

The flight attendants worry they're next, especially after training some of their own replacements -- hired to fill in for sympathy strikers -- during the weeks before the mechanics strike.

But the doubt also illustrates a conflict in the nation's labor movement.

This summer four unions, including the Teamsters, defected from the AFL-CIO, peeling away about a third of the AFL-CIO's 13 million members.

"The question is: Are bigger unions, better unions?" said Gary Chaison, professor of management at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

In 2003, the answer was no for flight attendants who chose the independent PFAA over the Teamsters.

"We switched to PFAA so we could have autonomy," said John Frame, a 42-year-old flight attendant from Livonia. "You don't midstream decide to throw out everything you've worked for with one organization that has only had 24 months on the property."

But James Gray, a 26-year-old flight attendant from Ferndale, wants to be a part of a larger union after watching the fiercely independent Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association garner little union support during its strike.

Gray said that's when he realized: "Wait, this could really happen to me. There's no one watching out for us."

Organizing drives typically take months, so the AFA may have to be especially quick.

To switch unions, the AFA would need to give signed cards from more than half of the PFAA's members to the National Mediation Board, which would conduct a vote.

Corey Caldwell, spokeswoman for the AFA, wouldn't say how many Northwest flight attendants have turned in cards calling for a vote. But she said the response is overwhelming.

The group must also meet the timetable of the airline and the bankruptcy court. Both have indicated they want to waste no time to restructure the airline.

In the end, it might not matter which union represents the flight attendants.

"The environment is just so negative that it's not really clear that just finding a different union is going to be enough to overwhelm the price of fuel, bankruptcy and the ability to replace striking workers," said management professor Budd.

Detroit Free Press

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