ST. PAUL (AP) -- Northwest Airlines is asking a federal judge to issue a restraining order prohibiting its flight attendants from calling in sick as they try to pressure the airline to agree to their contract demands.
U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank held an hour-long hearing this morning in St. Paul to hear arguments from representatives of the Eagan-based airline and Teamsters Local news.
Northwest, in a lawsuit filed Tuesday, said it had to cancel more than 300 flights since Dec. 30 as a result of a ''sickout'' allegedly being conducted by flight attendants.
Attorney Timothy Thornton, representing Northwest, said today that the union tactics that resulted in disruption of service were ''in the nature of guerilla warfare in labor relations...promotion of this tactic by the union is very clear.''
Thornton also said the sickout has not gone away since the New Year's holiday. On Tuesday, he said more than 650 flight attendants called in sick. ''The guerilla assault has slipped a little bit back into the jungle, but is still over 50 percent above average,'' he said.
In the lawsuit, Northwest said the union has encouraged and directed flight attendants to call in sick rather than report to work since late December. Northwest said the encouragement came in the form of e-mail, phone calls and notices on Web sites.
Northwest also asked the court to require the union to publicly withdraw any orders, requests or suggestions that its members participate in the action.
Union attorney Michael Bloom today denied the union sanctioned any job action and said there is no justification for a court order to stop a sickout.
''Where is the evidence that these flight attendants were not sick?'' Bloom asked. ''The numbers do not speak for themselves.''
Bloom also noted that no flight attendants had been disciplined or fired for calling in sick. He also said there is no evidence sick calls resulted in canceled flights because Northwest canceled many flights because of low load factors due to fears over the Y2K computer bug.
On Tuesday, Teamsters Local news President Billie Davenport also denied that the union's executive committee has encouraged members to participate in any illegal job action.
Davenport said union officials have cautioned against a sickout or other job actions repeatedly since September, in both hotline messages and e-mail messages to members.
In fact, just before the New Year's holiday weekend, Local news Vice President Al Habib sent an e-mail to flight attendants asking that they refrain from sickouts, slowdowns and other disruptive actions before the union is released from negotiations by the National Mediation Board.
Habib noted that illegal actions could be halted by court injunctions which, if disobeyed, could be enforced by heavy fines and other punishment.
''The company would like nothing better than to have the same huge advantage over us that American Airlines enjoys over its pilots by obtaining a multimillion dollar damage award against your union and selected officers and representatives,'' Habib said.
A federal judge in Texas early last year slapped a $45 million penalty on the union representing pilots at American Airlines, who staged a sickout in February to protest American's acquisition of Reno Air, and then defied the judge's back-to-work order.
The union of 11,000 Northwest flight attendants has been seeking a new contract for 3 1/2 years. In late August, flight attendants overwhelmingly rejected a tentative agreement that had been endorsed by union negotiators.
The two sides met in a mediated session on Dec. 7, but the National Mediation Board recessed the talks indefinitely, saying the union had proposed too many contract changes. No further talks were scheduled.
Although union members have authorized a strike, a 30-day countdown to a strike deadline could not begin until the mediation board declares negotiations at an impasse.
Flight attendants want a payback for three years of salary cuts they took, beginning in 1993, to help keep Northwest out of bankruptcy. The union says their current hourly wages -- which range from $15.98 to $37.08 over 12 years -- are only 3 percent higher than before they accepted the cuts.
Northwest also has an open contract with its 11,000 mechanics, cleaners and custodians. The airline reached agreement with its other unions in the months following a 15-day strike by pilots in September 1998.
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