The Association of U S West Retirees



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 committee.

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 nationwide.

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 Northwest's plans.

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 billion deficit.

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 full pensions.

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 airline provision."

Greg Gordon is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.