Northwest Airlines'


management and its flight attendants union say they're willing to talk to the other, but since a judge blocked the labor group from striking last week there have been no discussions.

So on Wednesday, rather than sitting on opposite sides of a negotiating table, they're presenting their cases to the judge who, temporarily at least, prevented a work stoppage.

Last week, U.S. District Court Judge Victor Marrero of New York granted a preliminary injunction that stopped the flight attendants from walking off the job Friday night. He also urged the parties to resume their talks, but none have taken place.

The sides ended up before Marrero after Northwest appealed a decision from Bankruptcy Court Judge Allan Gropper, who ruled earlier this month that the airline's 9,000 flight attendants had the right to strike after the airline imposed a contract.

Northwest, which sought bankruptcy court protection a year ago, wants to cut annual flight-attendant expenses by $195 million. The carrier has reached cost-cutting agreements with its other major unions.

Ricky Thornton, a representative for the Northwest chapter of the Association of Flight Attendants, says the onus is on the airline to seek a resumption of negotiations.

"Right now, Northwest has what they need, a gigantic concessionary contract in place, so there is no motivation on the part of the company to negotiate," Thornton says. "Judge Marrero, with his temporary injunction, gave Northwest the opportunity to not have to move forward. And now I think they are really hoping that the judge will rule in their favor."

Northwest spokesman Kurt Ebenhoch says "the lines of communication remain open between Northwest Airlines and the AFA. However, no new discussions are scheduled at this time." He declined to elaborate.

A hearing before Marrero isn't scheduled. Instead, the two sides will communicate with the court by phone or email. A continuing failure to restart negotiations could force Marrero to rule on the question, unresolved through four years of airline bankruptcies, of whether bankruptcy law trumps the Railway Labor Act.

The threat of an unfavorable ruling for one side or the other has led to settlements in every previous case.

Bankruptcy law is intended to allow financially troubled companies to reorganize by shedding obligations, including collective bargaining agreements, that impede their ability to continue operating. The Railway Labor Act, which governs airline labor relations, presumes that strikes can occur, but establishes a methodology to resolve disputes before they get to that point.

In his ruling two weeks ago, Gropper said that flight attendants have the right to strike, and said he lacked the jurisdiction to issue the injunction Northwest had requested. This past winter, during the course of talks over a pilot contract, Gropper encouraged a settlement by repeatedly extending a deadline after which the carrier could impose a contract. That tactic proved successful.

The Air Transport Association, in a brief filed in District Court in support of the airline, said that a failure to grant the injunction would leave bankrupt carriers with two untenable choices.

One would be to convince a bankruptcy judge that it needs cuts in "unsustainable, unproductive labor costs," but then face a strike, the ATA said. The other option, it said, would be to not seek labor-expense reductions, but rather to "face a slow agonizing death as it remains unable to sustain a cost structure that helped force it into bankruptcy court in the first place."