Northwest's workers get buckled-in lobby targets
As members of Congress travel, Northwest workers are finding
a captive audience for pension-legislation persuasion.
By Greg Gordon
Mpls Star Tribune
Wednesday, June 06, 2006
WASHINGTON - Some employees of bankrupt Northwest Airlines
are lobbying to preserve their pensions through their
special access to members of Congress flying to and from the
nation's capital.Gate agents and flight attendants have
pressed legislators such as Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and
Minnesota Republican Reps. Jim Ramstad and John Kline to let
the airline stretch out its $3.7 billion in pension
obligations over 20 years, chief Northwest lobbyist Andrea
Fischer Newman said Tuesday.
"Obviously, our employees know who these people are, and so
they stop them and say something," she said.
Newman said Northwest and its labor unions also have
enlisted thousands of employees to phone or e-mail House and
Senate members urging support for an airline exemption in
pension reform legislation being negotiated in a conference
Without the provision, Northwest will terminate pension
plans for more than 70,000 current and former workers,
Northwest Chief Executive Officer Doug Steenland warned in a
letter Monday to House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.
The resulting federal takeover would jeopardize "retirement
security" for many of those employees, he wrote. When the
federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. takes over failed
pension plans, it sharply reduces benefits to many retirees.
Boehner and other senior House and Senate negotiators are
resuming meetings today on the broad bill, aimed at
addressing $450 billion in corporate pension underfunding
Newman said Steenland planned to be in Washington today for
another round of visits to key members of Congress on the
airline's top lobbying priority.
In his letter, Steenland urged Boehner to redouble efforts
"to break the logjam that has delayed this legislation since
March and which now threatens to undercut the progress we
have made to restore our airline to financial health."
Newman said Northwest and three other large legacy airlines
have been assured that the bill will include an airline
exemption. But the terms are key: The bill that passed the
Senate last November provided for a 20-year payment period,
but the House bill did not include an airline provision.
Newman said a shorter payout period, such as 14 years,
"might not work" and only delay the termination of
A bigger fight appears to be at the heart of the
conference-committee impasse. The Bush administration wants
to toughen payment deadlines for underfunded companies,
while some members of Congress argue that demanding larger
pension contributions will force ailing firms into
bankruptcy and worsen the guarantee corporation's $23
Delta Air Lines, which filed for bankruptcy protection
simultaneously with Northwest's filing last fall, has been a
leading lobbying ally. But last week, Delta reached a
contract agreement with its pilots union that is expected to
result in termination of the pilots' pension fund.
Delta spokeswoman Gina Laughlin said Tuesday the airline
still backs the legislation. But she said that even with a
payment stretch-out, "growing financial pressures" could
force the termination of its remaining pension plan for
90,000 nonunion employees and retirees.
Northwest employees who have taken round after round of pay
cuts are clinging to the hope that they can preserve their
In an e-mail to Ramstad Monday, 20-year Northwest employee
Julie Wallfred of Wayzata said she represents those "who
have made difficult decisions to stay at these companies and
risk our pension assets out of loyalty to our company, our
product and our customers.
"We are collectively counting on Congress to reach an
agreement on the pension reform bill and to include the
Greg Gordon is a
correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.