Coffee, Tea...or HAVOC?

Mike Wohnoutka

Carrie Holsapple stretches her neck and rubs her bleary eyes as she settles into the bleachers for an evening softball game at a public field in Richfield. It has been a hectic day for the 24-year-old Northwest Airlines flight attendant: She reported to the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport at 6:00 a.m. to work a flight to Milwaukee. Then she flew to Detroit. Then back to Milwaukee, where she whiled away a two-hour layover before working a return trip to the Twin Cities. In all, Holsapple put in a 12-hour day--plenty, she notes, for a job that paid her a full-time salary of just under $16,000 last year.

Like many of her 11,000 fellow Northwest flight attendants, Holsapple says, she struggles to make ends meet. A few months ago, she took a part-time catering job so she could move out of the one-bedroom Uptown apartment she shared with three co-workers--a crowded arrangement even considering they were seldom all in town at the same time. But lately Holsapple has also been trying to stash away a little money--to cover the rent in case of a strike, a scenario she says appears increasingly likely, given the acrimony between the union's rank and file and Northwest management. Late last month, Holsapple mailed in a strike authorization ballot to her union, Teamsters Local 2000. The ballots won't be tallied until Saturday, but Holsapple has little doubt about the results. "Everybody I've talked to voted yes," she says. As she flips through the latest union newsletter--which includes a snapshot of a giant inflatable rat the union set up outside the airline's annual stockholders' meeting in New York--Holsapple notes that hostility toward management has been on the rise, particularly since the last round of contract negotiations failed last month. "The dominant attitude," Holsapple says, "is that they are going to screw us any way they can."

Even if Local 2000 members vote to authorize a strike, not all of them will necessarily walk off the job. Instead, the union is contemplating a so-called HAVOC strategy, a tactic under which workers would strike selected flights on a hit-and-run basis. Pioneered six years ago by the flight attendants at Alaska Airlines under the trademarked acronym CHAOS, the technique is designed to inflict maximum inconvenience on the airline while still allowing attendants to remain on the payroll. "We might strike an individual flight, or we could strike an entire hub," says Danny Campbell, the secretary-treasurer of Local 2000. "We could strike 15 minutes, an hour, or six hours. There's a lot of variables." The effects of a HAVOC campaign--which Campbell says may begin as soon as early July--could run a broad gamut, from minor delays to missed connections to widespread flight cancellations.

While Campbell doesn't rule out the possibility of a conventional all-out strike, he says there are some distinct advantages to a more narrowly targeted approach. For one thing, he explains, the element of surprise would make it harder for management to marshal supervisors to fill in for absent flight attendants. In addition, he notes, "HAVOC can be sustained indefinitely and the pressure can be turned up in relation to what's happening at the bargaining table."

Peter Rachleff, a labor history professor at Macalester College, says creative job actions such as HAVOC have other, less obvious virtues--particularly for a union like the Teamsters, which struggled to finance last year's UPS strike. Economic considerations loom especially large for the flight attendants, Rachleff contends. "You have to keep in mind that of all the workers at NWA, the flight attendants are the lowest-paid and so the odds are good that they've not built up nice savings accounts to tide them over."

For most of the nation's transportation-industry unions, he adds, conventional strikes have become less and less effective over the past 20 years, as management has turned increasingly to the use of replacement workers. "In a conventional strike, the risks are much too great of losing their jobs altogether and of not being able to survive materially," Rachleff says. "Every significant [transportation] strike except for the pilots' strike at Northwest has stretched out into months and years and has really been disastrous. So, out of necessity, ideas like this have become increasingly popular."

So far, outcomes in the NWA-Teamsters negotiations have been mixed. Though scads of work-rule issues have been tentatively settled, the two big sticking points--wages and pensions--remain unresolved. According to Campbell, Northwest flight attendants earn starting wages as low as $14,000 a year, and overall pay has risen just three percent since 1988. One reason, he says, is the lingering effect of a 20-percent pay cut the union took back in 1993, when the then-financially beleaguered airline convinced union employees to accept payroll reductions totaling some $850 million over three years. As a result, NWA flight attendants' earnings now rank "dead last" among the seven major carriers in the country, Campbell says.

Northwest spokesman Jon Austin says that he doesn't have information on the validity of that claim. But he does acknowledge the need for a new contract. "Both sides recognize that the flight attendants need a raise," Austin offers. "We're not negotiating over whether or not they get a raise, but how big it is going to be and what form it will take. I don't think anyone wants to have a job action."

Austin would not comment on Northwest's strategy in the event the flight attendants implement a HAVOC campaign. He says speculation on that score is premature until the next round of contract negotiations, slated to begin June 7, is completed. Besides, he notes, before any job action can be taken, the union must obtain a release from the National Mediation Board, a three-member panel appointed by the President that is notoriously reluctant to allow strikes.

Predicting the outcomes of airline labor struggles is tricky business. According to John Remington, a professor of industrial relations at the University of Minnesota, most experts expected NWA to settle with the pilots before that union went out on a costly 15-day strike last fall--and, in the end, won much of what it had asked for. "That sent a signal to the other unions that Northwest will pay if they are willing to stick it out," Remington says. And since the flight attendants can't shut down the airline's operation the way pilots or mechanics can, he says, targeted strikes are the logical strategy for them.

Back at the Richfield ballpark, Carrie Holsapple is optimistic that, strike or no strike, the union's actions will eventually produce something better than her current salary. As a low-flying NWA passenger jet rumbles overhead, Holsapple glances skyward. "Well, well, speak of the devil," she says with a sly smile. Asked what the flying public should expect if the next round of negotiations fails, she declines to make predictions. But consider the history, she says: "If you're a smart business traveler, you're not going to plan on flying Northwest when they're in the middle of a labor dispute."

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