Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Walking in the Woods: Free; Northwest's Advice: Priceless

August 16th, 2006 | Paula Brantner

Want a solution to that pesky problem of not receiving high enough wages? Northwest Airlines says: take a hike. Need something that you can’t afford? Easy: just dig through the trash to see if you can find it. In a publication for their employees facing layoffs and wage cuts, Northwest suggested that one way to cope was to take dates for walks in the woods, instead of the traditional dinner and a movie, and that employees shouldn’t be shy about pulling something they like out of the trash. Whew, I’m glad Northwest was able to solve those problems for us — hopefully they’re not digging through airport trash bins for extra parts for their planes.

It’s never easy when a company faces bankruptcy, and airline employees have been already been hit especially hard. Most employees of the major carriers have been forced to take pay cuts, layoffs and diminishing perks are commonplace, and pensions are also becoming a thing of the past. (See New York Times article.) Flight attendants in particular have it tough these days, as one analysis puts it: “Flight attendants, whose profession was once considered glamorous, may have one of the toughest jobs in the airline industry these days.” (See New York Times article.)

Recently, Northwest and its flight attendants have been locked in a struggle that could result in a strike. Northwest has asked the flight attendants for a 21 percent cut in base wages, with other changes that could cut take-home pay by anywhere from 16 to 40 percent. (See Star-Tribune article.) While there has been talk of a strike or work stoppages (known as CHAOS — Create Havoc Around Our System), those have been temporarily sidelined as everyone attempts to assimilate the new airport restrictions on liquid and gel items in response to news of a foiled terrorist plot in Great Britain. (See Star-Tribune article.)

So in the midst of all this chaos — pun intended — Northwest has devised a solution. All the problems of airline employees would just go away if they just needed less money to live on. It’s hard to imagine how too many people are living extravagantly on the less than $20,000 a year that beginning flight attendants make (which goes up to only $40,000 a year and up for veterans.) (See New York Times article.) But nonetheless, in an apparent effort to be helpful, Northwest published a four-page booklet, “Preparing for a Financial Setback” which contained suggestions such as shopping in thrift stores, taking “a date for a walk along the beach or in the woods” and not being “shy about pulling something you like out of the trash.” (See Reuters article.)

Some of the more than 50 employees who initially received the booklet, mostly ground workers facing job cuts as a result of outsourcing, found the suggestions a little offensive, and conveyed their displeasure to Northwest. The airline’s spokesperson, Roman Blahoski, “agree[s] that some of these suggestions and tips … were a bit insensitive,” and have pulled the booklet for reworking. (See Reuters article.) Perhaps the suggested transition from baggage handler to bag lady was a bit too much.

There are surely few among us who couldn’t use a thrifty tip here and there, but when a worker is facing layoffs or drastic wage cuts, a walk on the beach or scoring on a trip to the trash bin is not nearly enough to make it all better. Northwest, and the other major airlines, who have forced their workers to assume the brunt of the industry’s financial challenges, will be doing their workers the biggest favor if they figure out how to adopt the strategies that have made airlines like Southwest and JetBlue, not only financially successful, but places that their employees consider great places to work.

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