Winging It

With labor unrest brewing among airline employees, Northwest's PR doctors keep spinning in the wind

When telephone solicitors call during the dinner hour, most rational people hang up without so much as a goodbye. But when Minneapolis resident Randolph Hill (this writer's husband) picked up the phone late last month and heard the caller identify himself as a pollster who wanted his opinion about Northwest Airlines, he stayed on the line and was treated to a series of questions about the company's image. At first the script was innocuous: "What's the greatest thing about Northwest Airlines?" and "What do you think of Northwest's contributions to the community?" But the interviewer changed tack: "What's more important," he asked, "for Northwest to keep offering competitive fares, or to increase the salaries of its workers?"

Since mid-April, Northwest management has publicly charged a "small number" of ground workers in the cities it serves with engaging in an unofficial work slowdown to protest stalled contract negotiations between the company and the International Association of Machinists. The IAM represents more than 25,000 Northwest employees, including mechanics, baggage handlers, and ticket agents--11,000 in Minnesota alone. The slowdown, Northwest claims, is causing flight-schedule snafus and upsetting its customers.

In 1993, when Northwest was on the verge of bankruptcy, union members accepted some $850 million in wage cuts over a three-year period. Since the agreement expired in October 1996, the company and the union have been unable to negotiate a new contract. In commenting to the media about the slowdown, Northwest has argued that its workers are paid as much as or more than industry averages. The IAM has countered by claiming that among the six major U.S. airlines, Northwest mechanics rank fifth in terms of maximum hourly pay and sixth when it comes to pensions. Union rank and file for the most part believe it's time for the company--which has posted two consecutive years of record profits--to reward union members for their past wage concessions.

Adding to Northwest's image troubles, Republican congressman Pete Hoekstra of Michigan has asked the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate the late-April sale by top Northwest officials of $40 million in company stock. They knew labor unrest was brewing, he charges, and anticipated a price drop.

If the survey question about fares and wages wasn't enough to suggest that public perception of the labor dispute was the April 29 poll's real subject, the rest of the 15 minutes' worth of interrogation were: "Have you heard about Northwest on the news?" "How does that affect your opinion of Northwest?" "How do you feel about salaries at Northwest?"

While Vince Bazzachini, president of Bloomington-based IAM Local 1833, says his union wasn't behind the poll, Northwest spokesman Jon Austin's denial isn't quite so categorical. Austin says that if the airline had hired a phone bank to test public reaction to its labor woes, he'd rather not comment on it. "I assume we have a lot of polls out there at any given time," he adds.

Bill Hillsman, president of Northwoods Advertising, says the questions posed by the pollster make him think the survey was carried out on Northwest's behalf. "For sure they're doing some message-testing there," says Hillsman, explaining that the poll may have been a means to gauge whether respondents accept the notion that there is a link between consumer fares and employee wages.

"The poll's authors are making the connection, and trying to find out if that's a valid argument to use on people," reasons the ad agency president, best known for his award-winning work on the 1990 Wellstone for Senate campaign. Hillsman notes that public perception--and, by extension, public relations--is having an increasing impact on the resolution of labor disputes. A union walkout, he says, would presumably force customers to choose sides for the duration of a strike: either tolerate the inconvenience of flying another airline or brave Northwest's unfriendly skies. Both sides would likely see the wisdom of oiling up their PR machines with messages based on results from polls, surveys, and past disputes. For organized labor, that means appealing to customers as workers who struggle with similar economic hardships. For Northwest, it means convincing consumers that Northwest can't offer both low fares and higher wages.

Ray Hilgert, a professor of labor relations at Washington University in St. Louis, agrees: "In the case of a carrier like this, which is dependent on the public, [image] is especially important," says Hilgert. He cites a recent wildcat strike by TWA workers in St. Louis as a case study in bad public relations. On the afternoon of May 1, employees walked off their jobs for two hours, forcing the airline to cancel 45 flights and delay 200 more. The result, Hilgert says, is that the public now perceives TWA as the victim of irresponsible workers who gave no notice to strike and who hadn't given contract talks a fair shake. (Federal law prohibits airline employees from striking until a series of measures--including mediation and a 30-day cooling-off period--have been exhausted.)

Other labor experts point to last year's UPS strike as a textbook example of how a well-communicated, sympathetic position helped a union win major concessions. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which represents some 185,000 UPS workers, didn't poll or advertise in connection with the strike, according to Teamsters spokesman Rand Wilson. The union did, however, actively educate its rank and file about its chief issue--namely, that between 1986 and 1997 the proportion of poorly paid part-timers in UPS's workforce jumped from 18 to 60 percent. Interviewed by reporters about the dispute, strikers walking the picket line were able to articulate this message in terms that garnered the lion's share of public sympathy.

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