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Delta Judge Denies Ex-Northwest Flight Attendants’ Pay Bid

Nov. 16 (Bloomberg) -- Delta Air Lines Inc. flight attendants who worked for Northwest Airlines Corp. before its 2008 acquisition lost a bid for an order to force Delta to immediately align their compensation with peers who already worked for the carrier.

In a lawsuit filed in March, the flight attendants claimed Delta withheld higher profit-sharing checks from more than 7,500 pre-merger Northwest flight attendants based solely upon their prior union membership.

U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz in Minneapolis today denied the flight attendants’ request for a preliminary order pending final resolution of the case. In the same 37-page ruling, he also rejected the airline’s bid for dismissal.

“If the court were to order Delta to grant pay raises and a larger profit-sharing distribution to plaintiffs, and Delta were later to prevail in this litigation, Delta would be unlikely to be able to recoup its losses,” Schiltz said.

Schiltz also ruled that the five flight attendants pursuing the case can only pursue relief for themselves and not for those ex-Northwest workers who didn’t join in the litigation.

Northwest and Atlanta-based Delta combined to create what was then the world’s biggest airline in a transaction valued in April 2008 at $2.75 billion.

Continental Merger

The largest carrier is now operated by Chicago-based United Continental Holdings Inc., the product of a $3.47 billion merger of Continental Airlines Inc. and UAL Corp. last year.

The flight attendants’ union that represented Northwest’s workers agreed before the merger to a contract containing wage concessions to help Northwest emerge from bankruptcy proceedings.

The union last year lost an election in which it sought to represent all flight attendants at the post-merger airline. It has filed a complaint with the National Mediation Board contending Delta interfered with the election.

The five flight attendants who brought the suit claim the airline discriminated against them. In addition to the court-ordered injunction, they seek an award of back pay to compensate them for allegedly lower wages and profit-sharing.

Delta asked Schiltz to throw out the case, arguing that the federal Railway Labor Act doesn’t require them to automatically align terms and conditions of employment for the formerly separate groups following a merger.

“Delta mis-characterizes plaintiffs’ claims,” Schiltz said in his ruling. “Plaintiffs do not claim the RLA required Delta to align compensation. Instead plaintiffs alleged that Delta’s refusal to align compensation was unlawful because it was motivated by anti-union animus.”

Union Challenge

The airline also argued that the flight attendants’ union’s National Mediation Board challenge froze Delta’s ability to alter attendants’ compensation, pending the review, as well as the court’s ability to decide the issue.

Schiltz disagreed, saying the court’s resolution of the flight attendants’ claims wouldn’t affect the board’s determination on the interference issue.

The judge did rule that Delta’s interpretation of the labor law as barring it from aligning pay -- as he said it maintains it would do after the representation issue is resolved -- was legitimate and not pretextual.

Accordingly, he concluded the flight attendants were unlikely to succeed in their lawsuit and that neither a threat of irreparable harm nor the public interest justified an immediate court order equalizing compensation.

“We are reviewing the full decision now,” Gina Laughlin, a Delta spokeswoman, said in an e-mailed statement. “We are pleased that the court agreed with Delta that the request for a preliminary injunction should be denied.”

Flight attendants’ lawyer Robert Clayman, of Washington’s Guerrieri, Clayman, Bartos & Parcelli PC, didn’t immediately reply to a voice-mail message seeking comment on the ruling.

The case is McMahon v. Delta Air Lines Inc., 11-cv-00521, U.S. District Court, District of Minnesota (Minneapolis).

To contact the reporters on this story: Andrew Harris in Chicago at aharris16@bloomberg.net; Margaret Cronin Fisk in Detroit at mcfisk@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Hytha at mhytha@bloomberg.net

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