Northwest Airlines pilots will begin voting Monday on whether to authorize a strike if the bankrupt carrier forces new pay and benefit terms on the group.
Voting among 5,000 active pilots is expected to take 15 days, the pilots union said Friday. If a majority authorizes a strike, union leaders could call for a walk out as early as Feb. 28.
"The goal is to get a consensual agreement," Mark McClain, head of the Air Line Pilots Association at Northwest said. "If Northwest management can't get off the dime between now and then, then (a strike) is a real possibility."
Eagan-based Northwest has said it can't operate if pilots walk off the job, and it has warned that a sustained strike would result in the end of the company. The airline also maintains the union has no legal right to strike.
"If ALPA would attempt to strike Northwest Airlines, the company would seek an immediate injunction," Northwest said in a statement Friday.
An airline union's right to strike while a company is in bankruptcy is uncharted territory. While strike threats flew fast and furious during similar disputes in the bankruptcy proceedings at United Airlines and US Airways, those airlines and their unions reached deals. At Delta Air Lines, also in bankruptcy, pilots also are threatening to strike.
If a judge rejects the pilots' contract at Northwest, there's nothing in the law that says the pilots would have to report to work for wages less than what the two sides agreed to, said Douglas Baird, a law professor and bankruptcy expert at the University of Chicago. "This is America."
The airline is seeking permission from a New York bankruptcy judge to throw out its existing contracts with its pilots and flight attendants unions if it can't reach new pacts with the groups by Feb. 17.
At that point, Northwest could impose new terms and conditions for employment for both groups. Flight attendants also have threatened to strike if that happens.
Northwest is seeking $1.4 billion in annual labor cost cuts, with $612 million to come from pilots. Pilots previously had agreed to part of that target, resulting in pay cuts totaling about 39 percent. They now earn from $27,000 to $160,000 a year.
Northwest said it continues discussions with both its pilots and flight attendants unions in an attempt to reach deals before bankruptcy court judge Allan Gropper rules on the company's motion. Although Gropper is expected to rule no later than Friday, unions and Northwest could agree to an extension.
McClain's decision to launch a strike vote among pilots comes after weeks of negotiations with Northwest. McClain said the union won't allow "hired guns," in reference to Northwest's attorneys, to use bankruptcy to take away essential job protections and outsource jobs.
Pilots say that Northwest isn't telling them enough about what the airline will look like after it's restructured, information they say is crucial before they can agree to additional wage and benefit cuts and sweeping changes in work rules. "We are being asked to buy a car and we don't know how many doors it has or what color it is," McClain said.
The pilots have said they should receive a minimum 20 percent equity stake in the company once it emerges from bankruptcy in exchange for the cuts.
Julie Forster can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 651-228-5189.
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