Northwest teams sell labour contract

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Northwest pilot union leaders along with their consultants, actuaries and lawyers staged a “road show”, visiting pilot bases to explain their tentative agreement before members vote on it.

The sight of clearly uncomfortable union officers in a video sent to pilots presents an unblemished picture of what has become of once-militant labour fighting an inevitably unsuccessful battle against the powers that bankruptcy protection gives an airline. Captain Mark McClain, chairman of the Air Line Pilots Association leadership council at Northwest, puts the case bluntly: “This is clearly a deeply concessionary contract. I wish we could say otherwise.”

The union, representing 5,000 pilots, reached agreement with the carrier late in March, only after a strike threat and all-night bargaining negotiations that broke two deadlines set by the bankruptcy court judge, overseeing Northwest’s reorganisation. The judge had heard weeks of testimony from Northwest and its advisory team, and McClain says of the evidence, “make no mistake about it, this airline is broke”.

In the video, obtained by Airline Business, McClain repeatedly says that a contract, even one with deep concessions, is preferable to no contract because in bankruptcy the airline can ask its judge to allow it to set pilot pay and work-rules without negotiation. The judge could decide on more generous terms than those the airline sought, but few seriously believe that likely.

McClain urges pilots to examine their individual tolerance for risk; if pilots feel they and their families could take the risk they should vote against the deal and see if the judge would in fact be more generous. McClain is recommending approval. But the head of ALPA’s largest Northwest local pilots group, in Detroit, is advising a no vote.

Pay for Northwest pilots has been cut by 39% since 2004, but chief union negotiator Bill Dollaway says in the video that the union will get stock in the reorganised Northwest. The union believes that at 13% of the airline’s unsecured claims, the ALPA share is worth about $888 million. Dollaway tells viewers: “We did get the lion’s share of it, and we got a lot more of it than anybody else is going to get.” ALPA would also retain a seat on the Northwest board, the only union with such a role in the reorganised airline.

Dollaway derides profit-sharing prom­ised in the contract, but says: “We did get a great scope clause.” Northwest ALPA pilots get the jobs on larger regional jets under the deal, which allows the airline to set up a new subsidiary, Compass Air, to fly medium-size regional jets.■

DAVID FIELD / WASHINGTON