Union keeps Midwest Express guessing
They've promised chaos, but so far, the 440 union flight attendants involved in a labor dispute with Midwest Express Airlines have delivered nothing more than angst.
On Saturday, Midwest Express flights came and went as usual at Mitchell International Airport with flight attendants still performing their regular duties.
But the union continues to say it will disrupt flights, including Labor Day travel. It just won't say when or where strike actions will take place.
"That's the leverage we have," said David Borer, general counsel for the Association of Flight Attendants in Washington, D.C.
The union could do a mass walkout on Labor Day, which has the potential to strand holiday travelers across the country. Or it could strike a few key Midwest Express flights and disrupt the airline's schedule that way.
A third option, Borer said: Do nothing, despite rhetoric and picket-line chants strongly suggesting the union will interrupt travel this weekend through sporadic, last-minute walkouts.
"Certain union members are very militant now," Borer said. "But this isn't like a traditional strike."
The union has coined its strike strategy CHAOS, which stands for "create havoc around our system." It calls for unannounced, intermittent walkouts against individual flights, turning the airline's flight schedule upside down.
In the 1990s, the flight attendants' union threatened CHAOS against other air carriers, including United Airlines, US Airways and America West.
To thwart CHAOS, AirTran of Atlanta went so far as to remove about 10 seats from its airplanes, thus reducing the number of flight attendants required on its flights, Borer said.
"They settled their contract with us the night before Labor Day, three years ago," he said.
But, except for a campaign against Alaska Airlines in 1993, CHAOS has been untested. And flight attendants didn't disrupt their first Alaska Airlines flight until six weeks after CHAOS was declared, according to Borer.
"We waited until the company let down its guard," he said. "And we wore them down with a very surgical strike procedure that made a traditional strike look like a meat ax."
Midwest Express officials say they won't be whipsawed by CHAOS, and that - if needed - they have about 60 managers ready to step in as substitute flight attendants.
The longer the union waits to initiate an action, the better prepared the airline will be, said Carol Skornicka, a senior vice president and general counsel for Midwest Express.
Still, it's the uncertainty of CHAOS that can drive airline officials crazy.
Flight attendants disrupted Alaska Airlines' flight schedule only seven times over a six-month period. But the continual threat of unannounced disruptions sent travelers packing to other air carriers, said Kelle Wells, an Alaska Airlines flight attendant.
"We kept the company guessing constantly," she said. "They would put managers on a flight incognito, ready to step in and act as flight attendants if we didn't board the plane. But guess what? We knew what the managers looked like, and we didn't strike those flights."
Alaska Airlines officials could not be reached for comment Saturday.
But CHAOS had its desired effect on the company, Borer said, bringing it back to the bargaining table for a contract in which some flight attendants received a 50% pay raise.
Alaska Airlines challenged CHAOS in federal court and lost. The court said the airline didn't have the right to discipline or fire flight attendants for participating in the labor action and ordered it to reinstate attendants locked out of work, with back pay.
Through a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Milwaukee, Midwest Express also has challenged CHAOS as being unprotected by the federal Railway Labor Act.
Moreover, in anticipation of CHAOS, the company has temporarily canceled all flight attendants' vacations and has tightened rules regarding sick days.
"We are not taking vacation time away, but we are putting it on hold so that we have sufficient flight attendants" in the event of CHAOS, Skornicka said.
The flight attendants are furious about having their vacation plans interrupted, said Toni Phillips, the local union president.
"We have people scheduled to be married, and they can't take their honeymoons," she said. "We have other union members who have booked cruises with non-refundable tickets."
Midwest Express officials say flight attendants who walk off their jobs as threatened will be locked out until CHAOS is permanently called off.
Otherwise, "in a way, they have their cake and can eat it too," Skornicka said. "They disrupt our business and cause us harm but don't lose their pay and benefits."
The union has established a strike fund to give at least partial pay to flight attendants locked out from participating in CHAOS, Phillips said.
"Myself, I took out a line of credit in anticipation of this," she said.
Union members stranded on flights in other cities as a result of CHAOS could use "buddy passes" from other airlines to get home, according to the union.
"And if we have to buy someone a ticket home, or rent them a car, that's what the strike fund is for," Phillips said.
No flight attendants had walked out as of Saturday night, according to Phillips. A group of about 20 attendants dressed in green T-shirts emblazoned with "CHAOS" picketed outside Mitchell International Airport.
One picket sign read: "No contract for us, no cookies for you," referring to the fresh cookies the airline bakes for its passengers.
Flight attendants chanted, "That's all right. That's OK. Flights won't go on Labor Day."
Yet, officially, the union isn't tipping its hand as to when the first strike action may take place, Borer said.
The flight attendants voted to form a union in April 1999 and started negotiating their first contract with Midwest Express in 2000. They recently authorized a strike after negotiations in Washington, D.C., failed to reach an agreement Thursday.
Skornicka said the airline had agreed to changes in scheduling and per diem expenses that would result in 5% to 6% increases in take-home pay.
She said the union had asked for a 9.5% raise that would take effect immediately and 3% raises on the first and second anniversary of the contract.
Air travelers interviewed Saturday at Mitchell had mixed feelings about the uncertainties that would be created by CHAOS.
"Personally, I don't think random strikes are that bad as long as I don't have to be somewhere at a specific time," said David Carhart of West Allis, waiting for a flight to college at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.
"I am not worried now," added Dustin Jones of Vancouver, Wash., who waited for a Midwest Express flight to Dallas. "I think it's going to be about another month before things get bad."