American Airlines flight attendants have asked the National Mediation Board to release them from negotiations, in order to allow them to strike. Officially they’re suggesting that this won’t mean a strike, but rather enough leverage (a potential strike) to get a deal done. According to the union, the airline didn’t improve the economic terms of its offer at their most recent bargaining session, while the airline points out they continue to make progress on other parts of the contract (and progress, in their view, means there’s no impasse).
The National Mediation Board did not release Southwest Airlines pilots from negotiations over the summer. They do not have to release American Airlines flight attendants, either. They have to determine whether they believe further mediated negotiations are likely to be constructive.
Pres Hedrick:“Across industries, we’ve seen working-class Americans standing up against #CorporateGreed. Workers are tired of being neglected as upper management rewards themselves with incentives. @AmericanAir Flight Attendants are no different and will fight back." #1u pic.twitter.com/deFLZhnQ4X
— Association of Professional Flight Attendants (@APFAunity) November 20, 2023
The messaging from the union has been that they could shut down the airline over Christmas. I do not believe there is much chance of this, at all.
- There is no set timetable for the National Mediation Board to respond to the request by flight attendants. And they don’t have to start the 30 day clock that would allow a strike at all.
- If they do, they’re almost certain to wait until at least December 4 to do so. There is no reason they must act quickly enough to allow for a strike over Christmas.
- Currently two of the three members of the (independent) National Mediation Board are appointees or re-nominations by President Biden. While generally pro-union, and one a former attorney at rival flight attendants union AFA, they don’t want to hand the Biden administration a massive political hot potato heading into re-election.
According to American Airlines,
APFA’s assertion that we’ve reached an impasse is inaccurate. Since resuming negotiations in 2021, the company has routinely met with APFA and presented proposals that maintain our commitment to paying our team members well and competitively.
For months now, we’ve had an industry-leading economic proposal on the table, and we continue to make progress on other items, including as recently as last week. We stand ready to continue working with APFA and with the support of the National Mediation Board to reach an agreement that our flight attendants have earned.
Facing a Christmas strike by a major airline, the President would be forced to choose either to allow the strike to go forward, taking personal responsibility for foiled travel plans of voters, or to appoint a Presidential Emergency Board to study the issue (usually ensuring at least another 30 day delay) and reducing leverage for a labor union and angering the labor movement that he needs for his re-election. It’s an impossible choice, and one we can be confident that his National Mediation Board picks won’t put him in – when they can simply sit on this request for two weeks.
Things are getting vicious out there, though. Some flight attendants are gearing up for a fight.
I hope APFA shuts it down like it’s 93 and has every one of these “travel bloggers” gagged and boggled along with the company
— Pat. (@Gartreezy) November 20, 2023
The union is promoting the 1993 strike as some sort of guide to action, when mostly it’s the opposite?
30 years ago today, @AmericanAir Flight Attendants led one of the most successful airline industry strikes when they walked off the job in solidarity for a fair Contract just days before the busy Thanksgiving travel holiday.#1u #SolidaritySeason pic.twitter.com/lJkolfgVvW
— Association of Professional Flight Attendants (@APFAunity) November 18, 2023
In 1993 American Airlines flight attendants went on strike. For a couple of days it was completely unclear which flights would operate. By day three things had stabilized. The airline had begun training replacement crew, in case the strike lasted. They offered base transfers out of seniority order for employees who came back to work. And they threatened that anyone that didn’t returned would have their seniority stapled below the replacement workers who were hired.
Come day 4, President Clinton intervened, pressing the parties to accept binding arbitration. They did, and the union didn’t get much more in wages than American had already been offering, and the airline got the better of work rule changes.
Meanwhile the American Airlines flight attendants union has talked about not even doing a real strike.
- Their members can’t afford to be out of work for long
- So the plan they’ve articulated is to strike specific flights that might change each day
- This way they create uncertainty for the airline and for passengers, without having to have many flight attendants give up much pay
Meanwhile the biggest thing standing in the way of an agreement between flight attendants and the airline may be union officers’ upcoming re-election.
They need to sound tough, since they’ve promised flight attendants a lot. Giving them anything less than 50% pay bumps would look like failure and cost them their jobs. And those became much more lucrative jobs with the US Airways takeover of American Airlines.
In exchange for supporting the merger, union officers got a big increase in pay. The imposed contract included extra trip removal hours. The value of being a union officer grew thanks to what appeared to amount to a quid pro quo from Doug Parker.
Currently the airline is offering economic terms that would give cabin crew raises up to Delta Air Lines pay, including pay for boarding. The union is demanding much higher pay than any other cabin crew in the industry. If American Airlines flight attendants want a better deal, their best strategy would be waiting to strike, not striking. If United’s flight attendants, currently in negotiations, strike a better agreement then they can fight to match. Getting American Airlines to agree, when it’s more financially challenged than competitors, seems like a much tougher fight.