Northwest Airlines is demanding that its union flight attendants help train and work with "flight attendant candidates" who could replace them if they strike.
But their union, the Professional Flight Attendants Association, has sued Northwest in federal court to try to win a court order to block the training plan.
It argues that the plan violates the flight attendants' contract and the Railway Labor Act, which governs labor relations in the airline industry. Northwest maintains the suit is without merit.
"Northwest has a scheme to assign non-employee candidates scabs to perform work reserved exclusively for its PFAA-represented flight attendants,'' said union attorney Nick Granath. "They have told the union we will take these scabs and put them on your flights and you better well cooperate while they do your work or you are subject to being terminated."
Northwest, the union says, is lining up replacement flight attendants because it's not sure if the PFAA will urge its 9,500 members to cross picket lines if the airline's mechanics strike next month. The mechanics union, in the midst of a 30-day "cooling off" period after a federally declared impasse, could strike or be locked out after 11:01 p.m., central time, Aug. 19.
"Our contract is silent on the issue of honoring other unions' picket lines,'' said Bob Krabbe, PFAA assistant contract administrator. "We are keeping our options open."
The union's lawsuit is "entirely without merit,'' said Northwest spokesman Scott Tennant. He indicated the trainees are currently employed by one or more outside firms, not Northwest, at this time.
"Our current flight attendant candidates are being qualified in compliance with FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) guidelines and years of past practice,'' Tennant said. " If these flight attendant candidates are hired, they will be NWA employees."
He wouldn't say how many trainees Northwest has, when they'll start appearing on flights or for whom they currently work.
As part of its campaign to extract $1.1 billion in wage and other givebacks from its employees, Eagan, Minn.-based Northwest is trying to wring $176 million in concessions from its mechanics. The airline says the mechanics union's offer is worth $87 million, at best. The union values it as $143 million.No talks between the two sides are scheduled for this week. Negotiations are expected to continue this month and next, however. The schedule is uncertain. Meanwhile, Northwest has recruited workers to replace the mechanics.
Northwest, which has lost about $3 billion on its operations in the past four years, has said it may file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection if it can't win the labor concessions it seeks or fails to get congressional approval to take 25 years to make payments to its pension plans, which are underfunded by $3.8 billion.
Legally, Northwest can't change the flight attendants' wages or work rules unless the National Mediation Board declares contract talks are deadlocked and the two sides can't reach an agreement within a 30-day cooling off period, said Granath, the PFAA lawyer. But neither Northwest nor the union has even asked for an impasse declaration.
In a memo to all U.S.-based flight attendants this month, Northwest said it will be training flight attendant candidates who might be offered jobs should Northwest encounter a labor dispute or strike.
In a July 5 letter to the flight attendants union, Northwest's vice president for labor relations, Julie Hagen Showers, said the training is "solely an effort to protect the franchise and interests of our passengers in the event that one of our unions chooses to strike the carrier."
Candidates are not Northwest employees and are not promised jobs upon the completion of their training. They would be "activated," she said, in the "event of a labor dispute, work disruption or stoppage, lockout or strike by one of Northwest's unions either in violation of or after exhaustion of the (negotiation) process."
Replacement flight attendants are being trained at area hotels, said Krabbe.
Flight attendants, he said, are concerned that Northwest will force the mechanics into a strike that could cost the airline hundreds of millions of dollars.
They also worry that Northwest could win wage and other concessions from its workers and then file bankruptcy and seek more givebacks.
"Northwest doesn't seem to have a business strategy beyond getting labor to give money back,'' Krabbe said.