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Can NWA's unions strike?

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NWA's unions say they'll strike if a bankruptcy judge imposes new contract terms on them. But legal experts disagree on whether the unions have the right to strike. (MPR Photo/Annie Baxter)
It's a tense time for Northwest airlines and its three biggest unions. They're trying to hammer out agreements on concessions by January 17th. That's when a bankruptcy judge will take up Northwest's request to void the unions' contracts and impose new employment terms. The unions are responding to that prospect with a counter-threat: the pilots, flight attendants and ground workers have all said they'd be willing to strike the airline if their contracts are thrown out. But it's a threat that could hit some snags along the way.

St. Paul, Minn. — It wasn't a strike rally. But the picketing last week by members of Northwest airlines' pilots union outside Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport was at the very least a show of force. Pilots marched solemnly in circles with placards reading "NWA management, don't overplay your hand."

The pilots say they're upset about Northwest's proposal to form a subsidiary, currently called NewCo, to fly smaller jets. The union says the plan could eliminate 1,000 pilots' jobs. Northwest says laid off union members could have first dibs on NewCo pilot jobs.

If the union and airline don't reach an agreement on a contract, a bankruptcy judge could clear the way for Northwest to create the subsidiary. Duane Woerth, head of the pilots union nationally says that's not an acceptable option.

"The bottom 20, 30, or 40 percent of our pilots are not going to be forced out of Northwest into some unknown relationship that is probably temporary at best. They're not gonna do it," Woerth says.

And that could mean the pilots would strike. In 1998, the pilots union struck Northwest, grounding the airline for 15 days. A walkout at this juncture could be far more devastating for Northwest. Many airline analysts say the bankrupt carrier wouldn't be able to survive a walkout. Mark McClain, chairman of the Northwest Pilots union says a strike could lead to that eventuality and spell the end of the pilots' own jobs, but their jobs aren't worth saving if the concessions are too great.

"In the past these have been good jobs worth pursuing and worth holding onto," he says. "But [if] they cross that line, walking away from these jobs is more of an option that's available and taken seriously by employees."

Northwest's other big unions, those representing flight attendants and ground workers, have raised similar concerns and are also threatening walkouts.

But legal experts disagree on whether the unions can strike.

The union does not have a right to strike unless or until it's been released from the bargaining process by the National Mediation Boardunion does not have a right to strike unless or until it's been released from the bargaining process by the National Mediation Board.
- Airline labor law specialist Bob Siegel

Northwest has said its unions don't have the right to strike if a bankruptcy judge imposes new contract terms.

That view is commonly held by management in the airline industry, according to attorney Bob Siegel, a partner at the law firm O'Melveny and Myers in Los Angeles. Siegel's firm has represented US Airways and United Airlines as a specialist on labor issues during their bankruptcies. He says the Railway Labor Act would require additional steps before a strike is permissible.

"The law is pretty clear, that the union does not have a right to strike unless or until it's been released from the bargaining process by the National Mediation Board," Siegel says.

During normal contract negotiations, airline unions can't strike until the National Mediation Board has declared talks are at an impasse, followed by a 30-day cooling off period.

But bankruptcy law scholar Douglas Baird of the University of Chicago says in the bankruptcy process, unions have the choice to strike.

"They don't have the right to strike if Northwest is willing to pay them what they're obliged to pay them under the contract," Baird says. "But what [Northwest] can't do is go to bankruptcy court, have the bankruptcy court change the contract, then have the bankruptcy court say, 'Guess what? These guys have to work under the terms of that contract.' That's just not possible."

Northwest's largest union, the IAM, which represents ground workers, says there's little doubt they have the right to strike. Nevertheless, national IAM spokesman Joe Tiberi says the union wants to avoid the uncertainty that comes from leaving the fate of the contract in the hands of the bankruptcy judge.

"There's no good that can occur in bankruptcy court," he says. "Our efforts are focused right now on reaching an agreement with the company.

Many analysts say if that does happen, it probably won't be until the last possible moment, and until then the negotiations between Northwest and its unions will be characterized by brinkmanship.

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