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NWA flight attendants file suit against airline
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Northwest Airlines faces conflict with another union, the flight attendants. The attendants union has filed suit over Northwest's plans to train replacement flight attendants, and have current staff do the training. (MPR file photo)
Northwest Airlines flight attendants' union filed suit Thursrday to stop the Eagan-based company from training replacement flight attendants, who would fill in if there's a strike. The airline is in the process of contract talks with a number of its unions, and already faces an Aug. 19 strike deadline with its mechanics union.

St. Paul, Minn. — According to the flight attendants union, Northwest Airlines started training replacement workers last week.

Bob Krabbe, a spokesman for the Professional Flight Attendants Association, says the training will last three weeks, half the time of regular training.

"They have admitted to us that these classes are taking place, that this is part of a contingency plan in the event of labor disputes," Krabbe says. "We prefer to call it what it is -- part of their business as usual, which is part of intimidation and scare tactics for their employees."

Northwest is seeking to reduce its labor costs by $1.1 billion to bring an end to severe financial losses over the past four years. In addition to the mechanics strike deadline next month, the airline is in contract talks with the flight attendants union, and trying to win nearly $150 million in concessions.

The flight attendants union filed the suit in U.S. District Court in the Minnesota, asking the judge to stop the airline from training replacement flight attendants. The union says the company is violating its contract by barring union members from the new training classes, and by requiring union members to help with training during flights.

Any employer who does this is asking for all kinds of trouble.
- Charles Rehmus, industrial relations expert

Northwest Airlines released a statement saying the company believes the lawsuit is "without merit," and that the company's current flight attendant candidates are being trained in compliance with FAA guidelines and years of past practice.

The company says it's committed to providing safe and reliable service and will continue to do so during any type of labor disruption. The company says it's developing contingency plans, including adding to its staff.

But the flight attendants union says the training isn't up to standards. Bob Krabbe questions the instructors' knowledge of airline safety procedures.

Krabbe also says having the trainees on board would create tension and an unsafe working environment. Flight attendants would have to work next to, and train, their potential replacements.

"Any employer who does this is asking for all kinds of trouble," says Charles Rehmus, a professor emeritus of industrial relations at Cornell University's law school. He says the move by Northwest Airlines is unusual, and would certainly cause friction.

"This isn't something that normally comes up. I can even see recruiting potential replacements and training them. But I can't see asking your old employees, who may or may not be going on strike, to do the training," says Rehmus.

The move is not that surprising to professor John Remington of the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management. Remington says it's not clear how the case will turn out. But he thinks the most likely scenario is the court would temporarily stop Northwest from training replacement workers.

"The court would enjoin it pending a determination by the National Mediation Board," Remington says.

Remington says the board, which oversees negotiations between Northwest and its flight attendants, would order the parties to resolve the dispute either through arbitration or bargaining.