Northwest flight attendants drop Teamsters



Northwest flight attendants drop Teamsters

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) Flight attendants at Northwest Airlines dumped the Teamsters as their union, switching their allegiance to the upstart Professional Flight Attendants Association, according to votes counted Thursday.

The National Mediation Board certified the PFAA as the new collective bargaining representative for the approximately 11,000 flight attendants at Eagan-based Northwest, including about 1,900 on furlough.

"The defeat of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, who had been their union for 26 years, is another blow to the already weakened IBT," PFAA leaders said in a statement.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters in Washington and Mollie Reilley, trustee of Teamsters Local 2000, which represented the Northwest flight attendants, expressed disappointment with the 4,857-to-3,916 vote.

"We wish you all well in the challenging days ahead," Reilley said in a hot line message.

The new union takes over Friday. PFAA will be negotiating with an airline that has lost $1.6 billion since early 2001 due to the slow economy, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a drop-off in business travel, increased competition from low-fare carriers and the SARS crisis. Northwest is seeking nearly $1 billion in annual cuts over 6{ years from all its unions and has proposed cutting total flight attendant compensation by $134 million a year.

Organizers began their drive in earnest to leave the 1.4 million member Teamsters last June. Two weeks later, Teamsters President James P. Hoffa removed Local 2000's elected officers, claiming they failed to aggressively fight back. Those officers later backed PFAA.

Gary Helton, interim secretary-treasurer of PFAA, said the flight attendants had "a myriad of reasons" for voting out the Teamsters, but the most important was that they lacked a say in the day-to-day running of their union.

"The mantra we've been hearing is 'Free at last,'" Helton said.

Bret Caldwell, spokesman for the IBT, wasn't certain if the Teamsters would pursue any legal challenges. But he said PFAA will have a hard time proving itself.

"These flight attendants face many, many, many difficulties in the coming years. ... Without a strong representative like the Teamsters Union it's going to be a difficult time, but we certainly wish them the best," Caldwell said.

John Budd, professor of industrial relations at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, said he was mildly surprised that the flight attendants turned away from the "safe choice" of the bigger and more experienced Teamsters.

But from management's perspective and on the question of concessions the election outcome probably doesn't matter, Budd said. Whoever won would have gone to Northwest with the attitude that they needed to demonstrate to their supporters that they made the right decision, and that they need to win over those who voted the other way, he said.

This is the second time a Northwest bargaining unit has broken away from a big national union and formed an independent craft union not affiliated with the AFL-CIO. Northwest mechanics, cleaners and custodians voted to leave the Machinists in 1999 and affiliate with the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association.

Budd said the two votes show the tension in the labor movement between centralized power versus local, democratic control. And he said they send "a wake-up call" to the rest of the labor movement that national unions need to become more responsive.

Northwest has said little publicly about the disputes between the unions.

"We respect the choice made by our flight attendants and look forward to working with the chosen representative of our flight attendants," Northwest spokeswoman Mary Stanik said.