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CASE STUDY: Northwest Airlines
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
Request for Discovery
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
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
The Decision on Discovery
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."
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
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