Will Pandemic Airline Furloughs Reduce Worker Appetite For Unions?

In a shrinking industry airline unions become akin to a Ponzi scheme, benefiting the first in at the expense of those who joined later. When American Airlines took payroll support money from the government, they paid senior flight attendants to stay home while making junior cabin crew work all of the flights. And while neither Southwest nor Delta are furloughing any flight attendants, it’s the junior crewmembers at American and United that are losing their jobs at the beginning of October.

When President Trump floated the idea of saving airline jobs through unilateral executive action, AFA President Sara Nelson rejected the idea – towing the Democratic party line that the House HEROES Act which is a pinata of Covid- and non-Covid related priorities like $5.5 billion for rural internet was more important. She didn’t prioritize the jobs of the junior flight attendants she represents at United.

A decade ago British Airways more or less broke its flight attendants union. Flight attendants don’t have the power to shut down an airline the way that pilots do. Flight attendants went on strike, it was an inconvenience to the operation but they continued flying with replacement crew. Eventually the strike was settled, with British Airways getting the right to “B scales,” hiring new flight attendants at much lower costs. The legacy crew were segmented into one work group “Worldwide” and the new hires from that point onward were segmented into a different work group “Mixed Fleet.”

With the airline under fire in the UK for its plan to lay off all flight attendants and re-hire some at half pay they’ve been in discussion with unions over how best to proceed.

Now it seems the union representing Worldwide flight attendants wants the airline to lay off all the Mixed Fleet crew. That’s under the guise of ‘seniority’.

  • The two work groups are represented by different unions
  • But those unions are part of the same parent union

According to representatives of the newer hires,

It is important that we take time to add some context to this for clarification. Throughout the consultation period, MFU requested joint negotiations with BASSA to ensure a fair and equitable position could be reached for all members moving on to the new fleet. This request was denied and most recently your reps have learned that a formal proposal was submitted by BASSA as part of mitigation. It was proposed that MF colleagues were laid off in order to see WW and EF colleagues remain in the business following selection outcomes.

One work group pitted against another now is not really unique as cabin crew at both American and United have complained about their airlines continuing to employ foreign base flight attendants while laying off employees based in the U.S. They are all employees of the airline.

And of course the US Airways-America West merger was never completed until that management took over American, because pilots at “US East” and “US West” would never stop fighting amongst themselves, and without a joint contract management kept its labor costs frozen in an earlier time (America West pilots even had to pay to access their scheduling system.)

Early in the pandemic I thought that Delta’s unionized pilots would get better terms than non-union flight attendants (because they’re pilots) and that would make unionization look good to cabin crew there. I was wrong. While pilots got more generous early out terms, Delta is furloughing about 2000 pilots – and isn’t furloughing any flight attendants. Non-union Delta cabin crew come out looking better than their unionized counterparts at American and United.

When workers join unions they usually do not benefit for many years. They earn less, their jobs are more at risk. They are working, effectively being taxed by senior members of the union. But the promise is that they will someday become the senior members of the union who get paid more to work less, and can’t be fired. That promise works until… it doesn’t work anymore.

In the end though unions aren’t going away. Fewer workers on payroll means less union dues. But the junior employees taking it on the chin, who aren’t paying dues, generally won’t be voting either. It’s the crew at the top of the food chain, who are benefiting, who will be the ones charting a course forward – in the U.S., backed by the Railway Labor Act.

While none of this is uniquely new, it’s fresh and top of mind, and may forestall new drives towards unionization in the industry.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. I never understood why it’s mandatory to join a union in certain fields/states in order to get a job. Shouldn’t an employee be able to choose?

  2. No, cause if people were allowed to choose there wouldn’t be enough people in the union. It’s a racket.

  3. In other words, this post shows that the non-union FAs at Delta primarily owe their good treatment to Delta’s fear of unionization.

    A significant factor that reduces the appetite for unions is Congress. Union-backed legislators pass laws bestowing benefits on employees (union and non-union) that unions would never be able to negotiate without giving up other terms important to members. For example laws like WARN, FMLA, ADA, OSHA. Who needs to pay dues to a union when Congress provides free representation?

    As much as many in corporate America hate to admit it, unions exist because without unions companies took full advantage of the unequal bargaining power between employer and employee and imposed onerous working conditions. And principles like seniority prevent arbitrary or malicious management decisions. For employers, seniority systems have some drawbacks but also provide ease of administration and protect companies in many ways. When companies treat employees fairly and honestly, they need not worry about unions.

    If unions and federal labor laws magically disappeared, employee pay, benefits and working conditions for all hourly employees would likely suffer in our world of shareholder-is-king, profit maximization.

  4. Jack, the freerider problem – nonunion workers would get the benefits from collective bargaining without paying to support the union.

  5. I find it amazing how people are seeing a chance to beat on unions, and they are piling on. Never mind that many people have shown the differences in the treatment and protection between the unionized airlines and those that are not. There are problems with Unions, yes…but to play corporations off as not needing an equal force to protect workers (because we know government isn’t) is just idiotic. Neither side is perfect, but the current situation is not proving unions don’t work any more than it is that Spirit is the best airline in the world because its running all its flights.

  6. I’m a Union Member, a Libertarian, and I’m voting for Trump. Go wrap your heads around that…..

    I don’t really get all the union hate. A union is nothing more then a large group of skilled workers, realizing that there is strength in numbers, and using that knowledge to negotiate increased pay, and better working conditions. I don’t understand how people who actually work for a living could be against this.

  7. WHAT JOHN and MANGAR (political views aside) said!! Read history books. People take for granted today what was fought for in the past!

  8. The union seniority system has some serious downsides for the employees. A significant one is that it ties your benefits and quality of life to the health of your own company. You suffer in the early years (or get worse treatment) in order to benefit in the later years when you have seniority – higher pay, better schedules, etc. What happens when your company runs into financial difficulty? Or when it decides to close your base or you want to move to another part of the country? You are stuck commuting or you lose your seniority if you switch companies. And if your unions gets you a financial contract that is too rich, it may hurt the company and your growth chances. It really isn’t a sweet deal at all. Freedom to go to a better company and not be screwed by the company-specific seniority list would be a bigger benefit.

    And Sara Nelson seems to have a whole lot more of a political agenda that goes far beyond representing her represented flight attendants. But that’s typical of union leadership, using their position for personal goals and gains.

  9. @skeptic

    The thing most people miss is that many non-union workforces operate on a seniority system or close to it. I was a non union ramp employee for a regional airline several years ago. Pay, schedules, and vacation bids were all done by seniority.

    My view on unions is that they are a tool like anything else. They can be used and mis used. But their presence is a threat to management, and my view is that if a workforce chooses to unionize, management screwed up.

  10. Gary, your comments reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of how union seniority works, and what actually happened on the ground. Airlines didn’t “pay senior flight attendants to stay home while making junior cabin crew work all of the flights.” Each month, airlines develop their schedules and offer schedule lines for crew to bid, including “reserve” lines where crew are on call. The airline, not the union, constructs those lines each month. As always, bidding is by seniority, so yes, some senior FAs may have bid reserve lines and and flown less than junior FAs during the slowdown, but others flew full schedules. That’s how the system has always worked.

  11. Unions are not rackets. Some Unions have inexperienced leaders. Unions exsist because some
    Companies are not honest and can be unfair in giving wage increases or
    promotions. If not for Unions,
    For I.e. furloughs would happen not by seniority it could be by race, sex or friendships.

  12. @Larry

    I’d really need to see some support for Gary’s statement. Because if AA was just doing what it normally does for line constructions and bidding, Gary’s choice of words is highly inappropriate. He may claim it’s technically true, but it’s about as misleading of a statement as one could make. “Lines get constructed, then lines get bid in seniority order” is how this game is played. Been that way for decades.

    People also seem to forget that today’s senior flight attendants are yesterday’s junior ones. This business has seen plenty of bumps and bruises over the years, so I sympathize with the senior flight attendants — asking them to sacrifice now for the benefit of the junior FA’s isn’t fair to the senior ones who sacrificed in years past to make it where they are today.

    I’ll have a different opinion if people are trying to modify the contract to the benefit of the senior FA’s — that’s a bit dirty, because a contract is a contract. But the senior FA’s wanting the contract to be enforced as written? That’s the way it should be.

    The seniority game isn’t new. If one doesn’t like it, one doesn’t have to play. I chose not to play. Those that choose to play know what they’re getting into. Some win, some lose.

  13. After the last few years of travel, I no longer care about the airline employees because they have quit caring about themselves, their company, and their passengers. So, totally from the passenger perspective the airlines unions have created an environment where the oldest and least competent FA’s are allowed to be assigned to the passengers who paid the most and have the highest expectations in their international business and first class cabins. The union bidding system may make it easier on the airline administration but it is the death knell for the passengers who either remember the good old days or have flown on an asian airline.

    These days I only use the domestic airlines to get to a hub with asian airlines. The prices are the same but the asian service leaves AA service in the dust. The US airlines deserve everything that is happening to them now with the except that they do not deserve these government handouts.

    Of course the airline employees are loving the seniority system provided by the unions because they only have to know the count below them to know where they stand and whether they really need to do the job or go hide somewhere until the next meal is scheduled.

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