September 16, 2005
Northwest's striking mechanics' union is vigorously disputing management claims that the union no longer has a contract with the air carrier. When Northwest CEO Doug Steenland discussed the airline's bankruptcy filing Wednesday, he also said the union's contract was terminated. Steenland said the union would have no voice in the bankruptcy proceedings.
St. Paul, Minn. — On a conference call earlier this week to discuss Northwest's bankruptcy, Steenland said the mechanics' union ended its own collective bargaining agreement when its members began walking the picket lines.
"When the strike was declared on the 19th, at that point in time under the Railway Labor Act, the contract was terminated and therefore there is no agremeent in place," Steenland said.
Steenland was categorical in saying that under the law, the mechanics' union, known as AMFA, will be out of the picture in the company's Chapter 11 proceedings.
"There is no forum, there will be no hearing, there will be no issues whatsoever between the company and AMFA in this bankruptcy court. It is irrelevant to this process," Steenland said.
AMFA Assistant National Director Steve MacFarlane disputes both of Steenland's assertions. MacFarlane says under the Railway Labor Act, AMFA's contract never expired -- it only becomes open for changes.
"Even when we're on strike, even in bankruptcy, we have a contract with Northwest Airlines. And Northwest, by law, has to acknowledge it and abide by it," says MacFarlane.
MacFarlane says the union does not like the contract Northwest imposed on it last August, but AMFA still represents the mechanics -- even the replacement mechanics.
MacFarlane says while Northwest could go to the bankruptcy judge and seek changes in the contract, the contract doesn't disappear. And he says, the union still has power on the picket lines.
"While I know a lot of people are making it look like AMFA is left out in the cold, the fact is we're the only union that has any leverage to apply against this company right now," MacFarlane says.
The situation even has experts confused. MPR contacted about a dozen labor law specialists to ask whether the mechanics still have a contract and whether they will have a voice in bankruptcy court. Most authorities said they were unsure and declined to grant an interview.
They said they didn't possess the necessary combination of expertise in the complex areas of aviation, the Railway Labor Act, industrial relations and bankruptcy.
One expert who would discuss Steenland's comments was Gary Chaison, a labor relations professor at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts.
"I believe he's right in saying there's no contract in force anymore. But I don't think he's right in saying they don't enjoy any status before the bankruptcy court," Chaison says.
Chaison says the issue of a valid contract and a voice in bankruptcy court are unrelated. He says AMFA can petition to make a case before the bankruptcy court; if denied, the workers would have no voice. He says, however, AMFA likely is stronger now than it was before NWA filed for Chapter 11.
"Previously it was negotiating across the table from an employer that was asking it to make very heavy concessions and that was breaking its strike. Now it's a party to a process," Chaison says. "And as a party to its process, it's acting as a voice for its members, who -- if AMFA wasn't there -- would have no voice at all."
Meanwhile, another union will soon see significant job losses -- the pilots. Northwest says it will lay off 400 pilots beginning November, as it reduces its schedule. Union spokesman Bob Moser says pilots are very disappointed.
"Many of these members who will be furloughed this time around experienced furloughs earlier," says Moser. "Some of them have only been back for a year or so, from what we've seen on our seniority list. This is, unfortunately, a reality we've been through before."
The pilots union says the move is a result of Northwest cutting back the total flying hours for all pilots. Moser says the layoffs will happen within the existing union contract, and do not require negotiation or the approval of Northwest's bankruptcy judge.
When the reduction is complete next spring, Northwest will have about 5,000 pilots -- down about 15 percent from the peak four years ago. Northwest pilots will likely face additional cuts as a result of negotiations during bankruptcy.