Airline merger talks fuel anxiety, action

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Unions representing workers at Northwest Airlines are scrambling to get more information and prepare members for a possible merger with Delta Airlines that would create the world’s largest carrier.

Northwest, headquartered in the Twin Cities, employs about 31,000 workers; Atlanta-based Delta has about 47,000. Nearly every Northwest worker is represented by a union, but the only major employee group that is unionized at Delta is the pilots.

A combined Northwest-Delta would control nearly 18 percent of the U.S. air traffic, making it the largest carrier in the world, industry analysts said.

In recent weeks, the media has been awash in reports of closed-door negotiations between the two airlines and the resulting effect on air service, employees and communities.

Leaders of the Air Line Pilots Association reportedly are being briefed on merger details but have made no public comment. Leaders of other unions expressed frustration.

“Another week of ‘Merger Mania’ has passed and once again District 143 has not been provided with any information regarding the progress of discussions between NWA and Delta Airlines,” Machinists District 143, which represents ground workers, said in an update on its website.

“Just like many of our members, District 143 continues to learn about the progress of discussions through the various media forums.”

A merger can’t happen overnight, said District 143 President Stephen Gordon. “Clearly, when the time comes, we are most interested in discussing wages, pension, benefits and most importantly, job security.”

He added that “District 143 members should be assured that we will oppose any merger that compromises jobs, the pensions or the welfare of our members, just as we did when United Airlines proposed merging with US Airways.”

Meanwhile, unionized Northwest flight attendants are reaching out to their non-union counterparts at Delta. On Thursday, Delta Air Lines flight attendants will file cards for a union representation election.

“Delta flight attendants have made it clear that they want a voice in their future and a legally binding contract they can count on,” said Patricia Friend, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. “They want a seat at the table – whether it is during regular contract negotiations or mergers – so they can have a voice in their careers. Their goals are our goals and we will work together to achieve them.”

Once the National Mediation Board, the federal agency that oversees union representation elections in the airline industry, verifies that enough signed union representation cards have been submitted by AFA-CWA, a secret ballot election will be called to determine the Delta flight attendants’ union representation. Voting is typically conducted electronically via the Internet or through a phone-activated system, the union said.

Meanwhile, Congressman James Oberstar, chair of the U.S. House Transportation Committee, has raised concerns that a Northwest-Delta merger would lead to more consolidation in the industry. When Congress deregulated the transportation industry 30 years ago, the intent was to create competition – not stifle it, he said. (Unions, it should be noted, raised serious concerns about deregulation).

“We will do everything we possibly can to stop this (merger) from happening,” Oberstar said.

Congress will hold hearings on any proposed merger, he pledged, and said both the Departments of Justice and Transportation should review any deal.

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