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CASE STUDY: Northwest Airlines

The History

The basis of the dispute between Northwest Airlines and its 11,000 flight attendants was simple. In 1993, Northwest employees accepted pay cuts to help keep the airline out of bankruptcy. Further, they had been working without a contract since 1997. As a result, the airline attendants claimed that their pay lagged drastically behind industry standards.

Northwest and the flight attendants Union, Teamsters Local 2000, entered negotiations in late 1998 to create a fair and appropriate contract. Negotiations between the two sides stalemated on December 7, 1998. There were no further talks and no significant movement for more than a year.

On January 5, 2000 Northwest Airlines filed a federal lawsuit against the flight attendants' union and a number of rank-and-file employees. In its complaint, Northwest claimed that it had experienced a higher-than-normal illness rate over the holiday season that led it to cancel several hundred flights. Further, Northwest alleged that these flight attendant work absences were an orchestrated "sickout" sanctioned by the Union in order to put pressure on the airline to concede to the attendants' contract demands. The Union denied these charges, claiming the absences were due to a flu outbreak and fear of flying during the Y2K rollover. Throughout the period in question, the union publicly discouraged any illegal job action in pre-recorded phone messages and e-mails to members.

A chatroom on a flight attendant's website provided a forum for Northwest employees to discuss work related issues. Among the postings-which covered a range of issues-were messages from disgruntled employees advocating "sick-outs" and "strikes," as well as other messages discouraging such action.

Discovery Related Issues

The Request for Discovery
In its January 5th complaint against the flight attendants' union, Northwest requested "injunctive relief." Specifically, it requested that Minnesota District Judge Donovan Frank issue a temporary restraining order prohibiting the Union from encouraging its members to participate in a "sickout" or other illegal activity. The court immediately granted Northwest's request for a temporary restraining order.

Along with its complaint, Northwest Airlines filed a motion for discovery for materials that might prove that the Union had in fact encouraged such activity.

Northwest's motion requested searches of the hard drives of the office and home computers of union officials. Additionally, Northwest requested searches of the home computers of rank-and-file employees, including Kevin Griffin and Frank Reed.

The Protective Order
Defendants Griffin and Reeve moved for a protective order denying or limiting access to "computer hardware and information and communications which may be contained on computer hard drives."

As they were not union officers, but rather rank-and-file employees not represented by the Union, they believed searches of their computers fell outside of the scope of the lawsuit, which focused on whether Union officers had sanctioned illegal job action.

Parties told to Restart Negotiations
On January 11, Judge Frank ordered the union to refrain from encouraging any illegal action. Frank stressed that since both parties claimed that their main priority was to resume negotiations, "it is difficult for this Court to understand how engaging in significant discovery… will serve the interests of anyone involved." Judge Frank pulled back his second order within a day, after being notified by the National Mediation Board that he had no jurisdiction.

The Decision on Discovery
On February 8th, Minnesota District Court Judge Boylan issued the order on discovery. The order required all 43 named defendants, officers and rank-and-file members to turn over both home and office computer equipment to the accounting company Ernst & Young for "purposes of examining and copying information and communications contained on the computer hard drives."

The order permits the discovery of all data, including e-mail communications:

"[D]iscussing, concerning or relating to Northwest flight attendants calling in sick, being unavailable for contact by crew scheduling, flying high time or not flying high time, or failing to report to work because they claimed they were sick or might claim they were sick between December 1, 1999 and February 8, 2000."

Post Script
After conducting discovery, Northwest Airlines fired over a dozen employees in early March, stating that they had engaged in a "sickout." The Union has filed grievances claiming none of the employee's sick calls were false.

Negotiations remain unsettled. Union negotiators have recently asked federal mediators several times during meetings in Washington last week to release them from the talks, which would set in motion a 30-day countdown to a strike.

The effect on intra-airline email use is marked: postings critical of Northwest Airlines by employees have dwindled, and the majority of messages are now posted anonymously.

Points to Ponder

  1. Northwest's complaint alleged that the flight attendant's Union, Local 2000, encouraged the workers to conduct a "sickout." -However, it named rank-and-file members with no union authority in its suit and requested searches of their home and office computers.
    -Was Northwest's decision to cast such a broad discovery net tactical? What might be the advantages of including rank-and-file members in a discovery request?
    -Given the privacy implications, should the ruling judge have considered whether all requested targets of discovery were relevant to Northwest's actual complaint?
  2. Northwest requested searches of both employee work and home computers. These were conducted through a neutral third party, Ernst & Young, according to the scope dictated by District Judge Boylan.
    -Do people have different expectations of privacy regarding e-mails and documents composed on home computers versus computer equipment used at work?
    -Would such differences in expectations of privacy be legitimate?
  3. Prior to Northwest's Airlines lawsuit, individual employees openly aired their frustrations regarding stalled negotiations on the union's website. Some openly advocated a "sick out" others discouraged such action. Others expressed their views on unrelated matters. Some have argued that Judge Boylan's broad discovery order creates a chilling effect, discouraging employees from expressing their work related frustrations through electronic communications.
    -Is it legitimate for an employee who expresses support for a sick-out or strike on a publicly accessible website not to expect to become the target of further investigation?
    - How analogous is electronic file discovery to wiretapping? What are the important similarities? What are the important differences?


NORTHWEST AIRLINES, INC., v. LOCAL 2000, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, et al., 163 L.R.R.M. (BNA) 2460, (USDC Minn. 1999)

Karren Mills, Fox Market Wire, "Northwest on Rocky Course," January 18, 2000

http://news.airwise.com/stories/99/12/945372466.html: Northwest Fires Sick Out Attendants, Mar 9, 2000

Airline And Union Told: "Start Talking", Jan 12, 2000

Northwest Wins "Sickout" Judgement, Jan 12, 2000

NWA Flight Attendants Protest Talks Of Work To Rule, Dec 16, 1999

Northwest Flight Attendants To Protest On Wednesday, Dec 14, 1999