Northwest Airlines and its flight attendants union reached a tentative contract settlement Wednesday morning, just hours before a bankruptcy judge was scheduled to rule on whether to nullify the existing contract.
Northwest and its pilots union remained in round-the-clock negotiations in New York, seeking a similar agreement.
Late Wednesday, federal bankruptcy judge Allan Gropper announced he woudl give the parties another extension — until Thursday evening — before ruling whether to “abrogate” the union contracts, clearing the way for Northwest to impose whatever wages, benefits, job cuts and working conditions it wants.
In a statement Wednesday afternoon, the Air Line Pilots Association said it was making progress but that “some important issues still remain unresolved.” Meanwhile, the pilots announced that members overwhelmingly authorized its leadership to call a strike if Gropper abrogates their contract and Northwest imposes terms. More than 90 percent of pilots voted, with 92.16 percent giving strike authorization.
“Employees have been asked, and frankly steamrolled, to make huge sacrifices in this bankruptcy process,” said Karen Schultz, communications director for the Professional Flight Attendants Association, which represents 9,700 members at Northwest.
Schultz said details of the tentative agreement will not be released until after union negotiators can share them with members. She did say, however, that the settlement retains full job protection for flight attendants, including rejecting Northwest’s attempt to outsource work on international flights to foreign nationals.
That accomplishment, she said, enhances job security for flight attendants not only at Northwest, but in the rest of the industry as well.
The deal provides the $195 million in concessions that Northwest says it needs to emerge from bankruptcy – and then some. “I think we’re giving more than $195 million,” Schultz said, which will “cause a lot of pain” for employees.
Northwest negotiators consistently misrepresented the value of concessions, she said. “So why did we use them? For fear of this court, for fear of abrogation. The bottom line is, it’s tough to work out a fair deal under these rules. Bankruptcy proceedings are very unfriendly to labor.”
Concessions pile up
PFAA’s negotiating committee will not make a recommendation on whether to ratify the tentative agreement. Schultz said she expects it will take a week to make sure the actual contract language says what both sides agreed to. The proposal then will go to the union’s executive committee before it goes to members for a ratification vote.
Flight attendants, meanwhile, continue to conduct their own strike authorization vote; results will be released Monday, Shultz said.
Machinists Air Transport District 143, which represents more than 14,000 ground workers at Northwest, also expects to announce on Monday the results of its contract ratification and strike authorization votes. Machinists members are voting on a proposal from Northwest that provides $190 million in concessions, including eliminating 2,500 jobs and pay cuts of 11.5 percent.
Northwest, meanwhile, wants the pilots to provide $612 million in concessions. The pilots are working under a temporary agreement that provides $480 million in concessions, including pay cuts of 38.9 percent.
“We continue to meet with Northwest management in an effort to reach a consensual agreement, but the outcome will be decided by management’s actions at the negotiating table,” said Capt. Mark McClain, chair of ALPA’s Master Executive Council at Northwest. The pilots do not want to strike, he said, but will if forced to.
“Northwest pilots have given historical sacrifices to help save our company, but management continues to overreach by demanding even more,” McClain said. “I have told Northwest management on many occasions not to misjudge the will of the Northwest pilot group. There is only so much Northwest pilots can and will do. Hopefully, [the] strike authorization results provide Northwest management with a much needed reality check.”