The Game Theory Of A Weak American Airlines Flight Attendants Union

Julie Hedrick is the current President of the independent flight attendants union at American Airlines, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants. She was a negotiator of the joint contract between American Airlines and US Airways flight attendants and the company – a deal the members rejected but was imposed on them as part of the merger.

She took over in her role this year leading a union that’s been cracking up and had squandered financial resources rather than building a war chest heading into negotiations on a new contract.

Now in the midst of the coronavirus crisis the union has been downright placating of the company. Watching Hedrick in a new video that’s come out right after the airline announced that flight attendant numbers will be reduced by 47% this fall, she blames furloughs exclusively on Covid, and says she wants government money.

In the old days a union facing this sort of bloodletting would blame… the company – suggesting they’re not doing enough to save jobs while paying themselves too much, how it’s management that got everyone into this mess (remember cross-town headquartered Southwest isn’t furloughing anybody). There’s not a single suggestion here that any executive has failed the APFA membership.

I mean, come on. If you’re going to be a union, be a union.

I’ve heard numerous reports of irregularities in the furlough process. At a minimum APFA should be having lawyers go through every company action, and then going to court to halt the layoffs for each and every violation of the Joint Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Yet when I was putting pressure on American Airlines to stop disciplining flight attendants for wearing face masks, the union was largely silent even on that.

As a past concession the union agreed to foreign-based flight attendants who are less expensive to the company. Many U.S.-based flight attendants are angry that these American Airlines employees aren’t being cut first, let alone in proportion. I’ve seen that issue as a distriction – dividing employees against each other rather – but the union doesn’t even use the issue to play to its base.

So many fewer members means the union budget will be gutted. Furloughed members of the union are still billed for union dues, but the union doesn’t expect to receive that money – not paying just means not being eligible to vote in union elections, and when a flight attendant is recalled their past due balances are forgiven. By excluding junior members from voting in the union election that protects top union leadership even though they have less money to work with.

Meanwhile since the company will have already furloughed its members, they’ve shot the big gun they have in negotiations. The union no longer has that as a threat looming over them as pressure to agree to a concessionary contract. They can just refuse to agree to any contract changes and the status quo prevails. The company won’t lock them out, even a smaller American Airlines is too big to meaningfully operate on replacement workers. It’s unclear if the APFA realizes that yet or not.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. The flight attendants need a strong president like John Samuelsun (President TWU). John went right at Isom (at LGA) and was able to get a great contract for his members.

  2. ive been a flight attendant for 31 yrs i took early out and i think your article is spot on! You definitely know the situation the union is in bed with Airline management

  3. This hardly tells the real story. For years prior to the merger, control and leadership within the AFPA was an ongoing battle between jealous rival factions. They, like the other unions, “dank the Parker/USAir” cool aide” and signed on to the merger. If that wasn’t bad enough, they sat back while the much lesser in number USAir union group of radicals and rabble rousers controlled in large part by the hostile group at PHL base jumped into the fray. The result was the AFPA was virtually overrun and lost what little control their union had. Sadly the line F/A’s are paying a huge price.

  4. The pandemic and the economic crisis each airline is facing to survive is stronger than any union can or should be. Dollars saved matter. Or else it’s goodbye. Particularly when each is hemmoraging. Militancy in the face of going out of business – A real possibility – is not the best wisdom. It’s o question tough on the people losing jobs. No industry has been as adversely affected by the CV as is Air travel. Except maybe cruise industry.

  5. I was an AA Flight Attendant for 22 years & was able to take the early out in 2013 just prior to USAIR merger. One of the problems is there are flight attendants that are still on the seniority list that started flying in 1957 and the early 1960s!! I think the most senior is like 85 years old! Just ridiculous that these folks don’t retire. The FAA & DOT should get involved& set a mandatory retirement age of 70. Pilots have to retire at 65 & the have physicals 2 times a year. I don’t think any flight attendant should fly after age 70 & I think that they’re selfish to stay.
    They have had a long career & younger people need the job.

  6. We would not have furloughs if we did not have covid. Furloughs are a result of covid!

  7. Yep, AA’s Union totally sucks. Obvious way before Covid that their position is to protect and enrich Management, not their Members.

  8. Maybe there isn’t a need for an antagonistic relationship. DL manages excel across the board without one.

    This is a far better outcome than an Alan Joyce grounding of QF. But when the tail starts wagging the dog, it isn’t a sustainable situation.

  9. I am sure that the post was a gross oversimplification of the situation at AA. However, APFA has to come to the realization that the time to be an independent Union is gone. The forces against unions are just too big for it to handle.

    The logical choice is to merge with AFA. It is the union that government, airline management recognize as the most knowledgeable on FA matters.

  10. Teresa Lee! HOW DARE YOU! Who the hell do you think you are by say the ‘mandatory age’ for a flight attendant should be 70? Why should YOU be able to govern or be able to say WHEN flight attendants retire????? There are those who’s livelihoods have been striped clean by the so-called “merger”of AA and TWA . It was nothing less than a hostile takeover by an airline and an inept FA union, masked by the lie of “two great airlines, one great future”. Many flight attendants in 2003 were forced to sacrifice much of their savings in order to survive. HOW DARE YOU! You have NO clue!

  11. Janet,

    I hate to say this but her arguments are not based on emotion but rather facts.

    A person at the age of 70+ typically has reduced physical capability. The purpose of a flight attendant is according to its own union, members and propaganda is for safety. The FAA part of the federal government agrees. This is the very reason pilots have a mandatory retirement age.

    The fact that TWA FAs got screwed, That US and AA have had systematic corruption in their union and that FAs made bad decisions in some cases does not change the actual merits.

    At minimum the FAA should require physicals from ALL crew members in the name of safety.
    At minimum the FAA should have a mandatory retirement age for FAs as it does Pilots in the name of safety.

    This is not emotion this is based on science. If you are in a position that you cannot retire there are other jobs available.

    Let’s keep this to the facts and the facts alone. This is about safety. I hear that a lot when flying and it should apply to ALL not just pilots and certainly not just to passengers.

    Have a wonderful day!

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