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Chaos at Northwest?
By Mark Zdechlik
May 20, 1999
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Nearly half of Northwest Airline's unionized employees continue to work without new contracts, more than two-and-a-half years after the agreement that cut their pay expired. Typically, airline employees threaten to strike as a way of putting pressure on management. But an alternative tactic often referred to as "CHAOS" is growing in popularity among some unions. CHAOS involves small-scale, surprise work interruptions designed to trigger domino effects. Northwest's flight attendants are threatening a version of CHAOS if negotiations break down. The union the airline's mechanics voted to join is an even more enthusiastic proponent of the strategy.

NORTHWEST AIRLINE'S 11,000 TEAMSTERS UNION FLIGHT ATTENDANTS are leveling a threat to management as contract talks drag on: settle up or face an attack from within.
Northwest Airlines First Quarter 1999
  • Employs 51,000 people.
  • Reported first-quarter loss of $29 million.
  • First-quarter revenues were $2.28 billion.
  • Settled contract with pilot's union after a strike in September 1998.

Photo: Courtesy of Joe Vallejo
The union's latest telephone hot-line message says "The time has come, boys, to put the economics on the table or suffer the consequences of HAVOC at Northwest Airlines."

"Havoc" is the Northwest Airline's flight attendant's version of CHAOS or "Creates Havoc Around Our System." Alaska Airlines flight attendants came up with CHAOS six years ago as an an alternative to a traditional strike. Rather than shutting down an airline, workers choosing the CHAOS route engage in carefully planned surprise actions. Generally it's just a few key people whose refusal to work - even for a very short period of time - triggers an onslaught of problems.

"It's like guerilla warfare," says Dell Femine, leader of the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association. "You never know when it's going to hit you and that's what surprises everybody. It's a very good psychological weapon."

Dell Femine is a big fan of CHAOS because it allows workers to cut deeply into an airline's bottom line all the while remaining on the payroll. Dell Femine says carefully timed interruptions produce a snowball effect in the airline industry because of the interdependency of airline operations.

"You could have a situation occur that people don't show up to work or maybe you don't work on an aircraft for a couple of hours," he said. "What it does is it backs up traffic without a strike."

And that back up can inconvenience thousands of passengers. With the omnipresent threat of CHAOS, customers take their business elsewhere and the airline loses money. Work slowdowns commonly grow from contentious contract battles and the airline industry is notorious for its history of rocky labor relations. But it wasn't until a labor dispute in 1993 at Alaska Airlines that CHAOS emerged as an alternative to striking in the airline industry.

Fact Sheet
  • Currently polling members for an authorization to strike.
  • Represents 11,000 flight attendants.
  • Previous contract expired in 1996.

The nation's largest flight attendant's union, the Association of Flight Attendants came up with the CHAOS concept, trademarked the name and produced a video trumpeting the merits of CHAOS to its 44,000 members.

A.F.A. Attorney David Bohr says the union was looking for a way to pressure management without jeopardizing workers. "Back in 1986, the TWA flight attendants struck and Carl Icahn had replaced all flight attendants and broke the back of the union," Bohr said. "We decided we had to be a little smarter than that to avoid the carnage that resulted."

Bohr says in their first CHAOS attack, Alaska Airlines flight attendants walked off a plane in Seattle just as boarding was to begin. At the time, it was legal for the union to strike. The flight attendants had been released from federal mediation and a 30-day cooling-off period had expired. "That crew struck for 20 minutes then we sent them back and told them to go back to the supervisor and offer to go back to work and that created even more pandemonium and there was a lot of head scratching," said Bohr.

Eventually, management sent off the flight with a new crew. In response to ensuing CHAOS episodes, Alaska Airlines tried to fire some flight attendants, but a federal judge ruled the tactic was the legal equivalent of a strike. Shortly after the court weighed in on the side of the workers, Alaska Airline's flight attendants won what attorney David Bohr says was a very favorable contract.
Fact Sheet
  • Vying to represent Northwest's 18,000 mechanics, baggage handlers, reservations agents and searcher personnel.
  • National Mediation Board is currently reviewing an election to decide which union will represent the workers.

More recently, America West flight attendants -also represented by the A.F.A - credited their threat of CHAOS with forcing an 11th hour contract settlement.

In the case of Northwest Airlines, which is still trying to win back customers after slowdowns by ground workers and the strike by pilot's last fall, the looming threat of CHAOS likely won't sit well with travelers.

The CHAOS concept is new to Bill of Atlanta Georgia who says he'd avoid any airline where unions were threatening surprise disturbances. "I wouldn't like to be a recipient of one of those type of actions that could have a direct effect on me," he said, uttering the words Northwest Airline Executives don't want to hear. "I would probably look for alternatives."

Northwest declined to comment on how it would respond to employees engaging in CHAOS or whether it views CHAOS tactics as more difficult to deal with than traditional strikes.