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Northwest prepares for CHAOS
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A United Airlines flight attendant participated in a December 2004 rally in Washington, D.C., to show support for workers' pensions, health care and jobs in the airline industry. Her sign refers to a business disruption strategy called "CHAOS," which may be used by Northwest flight attendants if the airline's mechanics strike. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
News headlines about Northwest Airlines are focused on its mechanics union, which could strike as early as Friday night. But there are other unions at the airline voting this week whether to support a potential mechanics strike. According to a Northwest Airlines contingency plan, company executives are concerned flight attendants may strike in sympathy. They fear the union would use a non-traditional strategy called CHAOS, that would make it hard to predict where to send replacement workers.

St. Paul, Minn. — According to a confidential Northwest Airlines document, a non-traditional strike strategy is exactly the kind of move airline officials think flight attendants would use.

The strategy goes like this: Almost all flight attendants report to work as usual. A handful of flight attendants call in sick, maybe two per flight in some cases. If a flight doesn't have a full crew, it can't carry passengers.

This isn't a new strategy by any means. The Association of Flight Attendants has used it since the 1990s, calling it CHAOS, which stands for Creating Havoc Around our System.

Peter Rachleff, a history professor and labor supporter at Macalester College, says it's an important strategy because the flight attendants can keep working.

"(It's) a strategy that would allow workers to inflict economic damage on their employer, while not essentially sticking a sign on their back that says, 'Replace me,'" says Rachleff. "It's unclear because people would call in sick, they wouldn't come in one day, but they'd come in the next. They weren't formally on strike."

That's something Peter Rachleff and Northwest Airlines officials would probably disagree on. Rachleff says a rotating strike is not a formal job action, but some say airline officials would surely see it as a violation of the flight attendants' labor contract.

When contacted for this story, a Northwest spokesperson responded by e-mail, saying the flight attendants' contract doesn't allow for sympathy strikes of any kind, including CHAOS-type walkouts. The spokesperson says Northwest expects all flight attendants to show up for work as scheduled, even if the mechanics strike.

But the actions of the company show quite different expectations. The Eagan-based airline has trained replacement flight attendants in the case of a walkout. It plans to contract about 1,000 replacement workers, recall furloughed flight attendants, and train managers to work flights.

But it's not as easy to replace flight attendants as it is the company's mechanics. It's more complicated to get flight crew personnel to the right airport on the right day, for Northwest to keep its operations normal.

If you do a CHAOS strike or rotating strike against an employer who really wants to play hardball, you may find yourself locked out at all locations and replaced.
- Prof. Gary Chaison, Clarke University in Massachussetts

The showdown between Northwest Airlines and its mechanics really involves all the unions at the company, even those not involved in current contract talks. That's because 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. It's trying to win nearly $150 million in concessions from the flight attendants' union.

Union officials say the airline wants to cut salaries by 20 percent, and outsource for half its international flights. The airline wants even more concessions from the mechanics' union -- $176 million. With such demands, Northwest has been planning for walkouts.

But analysts say, even with planning, it would still be hard for Northwest to overcome a rotating strike through staffing. It would be nearly impossible to have enough backup flight attendants at every airport Northwest serves at all times.

But that doesn't mean a rotating strike would work.

"It's a very dangerous type of a strike, particularly today," says Gary Chaison, who teaches management at Clarke University in Massachussetts.

Chaison says the airline could get an injunction and stop the rotating strike right away. For that, the court would need to declare the strike illegal and order the flight attendants back to work. Or, even worse, it could declare the situation a legal strike, which could hurt employees.

"If you do a CHAOS strike or rotating strike against an employer who really wants to play hardball, you may find yourself locked out at all locations and replaced," says Chaison.

The airline, he says, would likely ask flight attendants to sign guarantees that they won't walk out.

And there's another danger -- the rotating strike may work too well.

"The other alternative is that just the concept of a rotating strike may cause so much anxiety on the part of the public that they wouldn't fly at all," says Chaison. "And while this might be what the flight attendants want to accomplish, the effect may be to greatly weaken Northwest Airlines, pushing it into bankruptcy. And it would be completely counterproductive."

The flight attendants would have to find a balance. They would need to inflict enough damage to pressure the airline into compromise with its mechanics, without forcing the company into bankruptcy.

According to airline analyst Mike Boyd, it's a moot point. He says the Professional Flight Attendants Association isn't even organized enough to pull off a rotating strike.

"The flight attendants union at Northwest is a relatively new one. And that takes a lot of organization. So I would say I wouldn't worry about it too much," says Boyd.

Of course, flight attendants unions say that's exactly why its strikes have worked in the past -- because airlines have underestimated them.

Officials with the Professional Flight attendants Association, representing almost 9,800 Northwest employees, say they'll know the results of their membership vote on a sympathy strike Friday night. They're not saying when they'll make that information public.