Tough decisions pile up for Northwest flight attendants


If you’re a flight attendant at Northwest, who could blame you for asking, “What’s next?”

Right now, you must vote on a contract proposal that, for starters, will cut your pay by 21 percent, slash your health insurance and other benefits, and freeze your pension.

If you reject that proposal, Northwest says, it will impose even worse terms, including outsourcing 800 of your jobs.

Once that is out of the way, you have to decide the fate of your union – again.

Three years ago, a majority of you decertified Teamsters Local 2000 and formed the independent Professional Flight Attendants Association. Now, co-workers – including some former leaders from the Teamsters days and some recent PFAA activists and leaders – want to replace PFAA representation and join the much larger Association of Flight Attendants, which is an AFL-CIO union that is part of the Communications Workers of America.

Your current PFAA leadership wants you to reject the AFA option. Instead, they want you to affiliate with a different AFL-CIO union, the Transport Workers Union.

However, you can’t do that, according to the AFL-CIO, which has granted AFA exclusive organizing rights among you and your co-workers. On Wednesday, the AFL-CIO ordered TWU to halt merger discussions with PFAA and instead support the election of AFA as your new bargaining representative.

PFAA leadership says it wants you to have a choice, so will carry out its plans for a merger vote with TWU anyway, at the same time the federal government is running its representation election between PFAA and AFA.
Depending on how the votes go, you could have a new union, or possibly two unions, or possibly no union at all.

In the meantime, of course, you’re supposed to do your job, cheerfully and professionally, for a bankrupt airline.

“It’s really tough on flight attendants for all this to be going on at the same time,” said Karen Schultz, communications officer for PFAA. “We’re really concerned that there’s fatigue setting in.”

Experience matters, decertification supporters say
The contract ratification vote and union representation votes – though technically separate – are nonetheless intertwined. AFA’s proponents say PFAA lacks the experience and structure to adequately deal with the high-stakes decisions forced upon flight attendants by Northwest’s bankruptcy. Proponents refer frequently to AFA’s size, airline experience, and extensive financial and organizational resources.

PFAA represents the 9,500 flight attendants at Northwest. AFA represents 46,000 flight attendants at 20 airlines.

To promote itself, AFA has posted comparisons of what it negotiated during bankruptcy proceedings at United and US Airways, and what PFAA negotiated at Northwest. The implication is clear: AFA could do better if given a chance. But AFA won’t get that chance, Northwest claims, even if AFA wins its election.

Letter threatens consequences
In a letter to flight attendants on May 12, Northwest vice president Suzanne Boda said: “A perception has been publicly communicated that Flight Attendants are hopeful for a quick return to the bargaining table – potentially with a different bargaining representative – and an improved offer. Those hopes, if they exist, are misplaced.”

If flight attendants don’t approve the contract, Boda’s letter says, Northwest will impose even harsher terms. That includes unspecified job cuts, eliminating 30 percent of international jobs by outsourcing them, and eliminating early buyout options for more than 1,200 flight attendants.

PFAA president Guy Meek called Boda’s letter “a blatant scare tactic meant to intimidate our members.”

AFA lawyer David A. Borer said, “The threat to impose more concessions than those contained in the tentative agreement is not supported by law, and constitutes interference” in the union representation election.

Ruling supports AFA
AFA claims TWU’s merger attempt with PFAA also interferes with the representation election. Under Article 21 provisions that govern jurisdictional disputes among affiliates, the AFL-CIO gave AFA exclusive organizing rights for Northwest flight attendants last November. That exclusivity extends for one year.

After PFAA leaders announced May 5 that they are recommending affiliation with TWU, AFA requested a “non-compliance” hearing with a subcommittee of the AFL-CIO executive board. The subcommittee held the hearing May 15 and issued its ruling Wednesday.

The ruling rejects TWU’s argument that a merger agreement is not organizing. Instead the ruling upholds AFA’s organizing rights, orders TWU to “cease any and all efforts to affiliate PFAA; cease any financial or other assistance to PFAA; and issue a public statement supporting [AFA] in the upcoming [National Mediation Board] election.”

TWU has received the ruling but not yet formulated a response, communications director Jim Gannon said Thursday. He noted that the AFL-CIO ruling gives TWU five days to demonstrate compliance with the order.

AFA spokeswoman Corey Caldwell said she believes Wednesday’s ruling settles the dispute and that AFA will continue with its campaign to win the representation vote among Northwest flight attendants. “The campaign is still going strong and we’re going to keep going,” she said.

Bad blood
But PFAA’s executive board continues to oppose what it sees as a raid by AFA. A membership vote to affiliate with TWU will go on as scheduled, Schultz said. “We believe flight attendants should have a choice. We believe democracy should always rise above bureaucracy.”

TWU, represents 135,000 workers at 26 airlines, though its only fight attendants are the 8,500 at Southwest Airlines. Southwest’s flight attendants, however, have “the leading contract in industry,” Schultz said. In addition, she argues, TWU is a financially strong union that is a better fit in giving PFAA both the autonomy and support it needs.

PFAA leaders recognize the advantages of affiliation, which – because of AFL-CIO jurisdiction rules – was not an alternative at the time of the Teamsters decertification, Schultz said.

“We respect the AFL-CIO, which is why were considering heading back in,” she said. During the Northwest bankruptcy ordeal, she said, PFAA has received strong support from unions both inside and outside the AFL-CIO. “That sort of union ideal – of solidarity without strings – we admire from unions we’ve worked with.”

But PFAA leadership does not believe AFA is the route to take, she said. “It’s very disheartening to see what AFA is doing. To have a sister union trying to block choice for our members, that’s more difficult than anything.”

Votes go on.
As for now, flight attendants are voting on Northwest’s contract proposal through June 6.

Then, from June 8-July 6, they will choose between PFAA and AFA in an election supervised by the National Mediation Board, which oversees labor law in the transportation industry. If however, fewer than 50 percent of flight attendants vote, they will lose union representation entirely.

PFAA will hold its vote on whether to affiliate with TWU at the same time, from June 8-July 6, Schultz said.