MINNEAPOLIS — Flight attendants at Northwest Airlines have voted overwhelmingly to strike the airline this weekend if a contract dispute over wages and benefits is not resolved, a union official said Monday.
Disclosure of the strike vote came as the two sides readied to resume negotiations for the first time since last month.
Jeff Musto, a spokesman for Teamsters Local 2747 representing 6,500 Northwest attendants, said 94.4% of the more than 5,000 attendants participating voted to strike. Strike authorization required a two-thirds majority.
"The strike authorization of 94.4% reflects the deplorable state of labor relations at Northwest Airlines," Musto said, reading from a prepared statement delivered by the union local at a news conference.
"Northwest Airlines' labor relations does not comprehend the severity of the labor situation at this carrier," the statement read.
Northwest spokesman Redmond Tyler said Monday that he was not surprised by the strike vote, and said the airline expected to continue operating most of its flights if a strike actually occurred
About 2,000 Northwest managers are qualified to be flight attendants and would be used during a strike, Tyler said. He also said the airline could reduce the number of flight attendants on some aircraft.
Tyler said the airline and union would hold a negotiating session today "with the cooperation of the National Mediation Board, and we continue to remain optimistic that our contract will be resolved."
The two sides have not negotiated since the National Mediation Board released them from mandatory negotiations last month, when they deadlocked over wages, fringe benefits and work rules. A 30-day cooling-off period ends at 12:01 a.m. EST on Saturday, at which time the attendants may strike and Northwest may impose a new contract.
Northwest, which merged with the Minneapolis-based Republic Airlines in 1986, controls about 60% of the passenger traffic in the Twin Cities area. United Airlines, the No. 2 carrier in the area, has said it would bring in larger planes for flights there if Northwest was struck.
Last week, Northwest announced that it would lay off 5,300 mechanics and baggage handlers if its flight attendants went on strike. But Musto said at the time that the announcement was a ploy to pit the two unions against each other.
Would End Pay Gaps
But Northwest said the announcement was a precaution required by International Assn. of Machinists labor contracts with Republic.
The IAM, which represents 20,000 ground workers at Northwest, and the pilots' union, have not said whether they would honor a strike by the flight attendants.
In the last strike against Northwest, the machinists union walked out for 27 days in May, 1982.
Northwest and its major unions have been involved in talks on new contracts since the merger with Republic.
Many former Republic employees are paid less than their Northwest counterparts, a cause of friction between the airline and its unions.
Northwest's latest proposal to the Teamsters offers immediate elimination of pay gaps between former Northwest and former Republic flight attendants and deals with the other areas of disagreement.
The proposed five-year agreement calls for pay increases for former Republic flight attendants ranging from 17% to 26%, according to Terry Erskine, Northwest's vice president of labor relations. Senior flight attendants earn about $35,000 annually; starting pay is about $15,000 a year, he said.
But Musto said Monday that "even though it does show a pay raise for the Republic people, the end result would be a pay cut if you put a dollars and cents figure on things being taken away from the Republic people."
Musto said the proposal would mean less vacation pay and, "in the long run, you would get less retirement benefits."
Claudia Bushbaum, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 2747, has said the airline also is demanding unlimited use of multilingual flight attendants who enjoy "super-seniority" in bidding on work schedules. That demand, if agreed to, could result in layoffs for senior flight attendants who are not multilingual, she contended.
Earlier this month, NWA Inc., the parent company of Northwest, announced net earnings of $103 million for 1987, despite a 99.8% drop in net income for the fourth quarter.