American Airlines’ flight attendants’ union wants permission from the government to go on strike in 30 days. But you don’t need to worry about a strike screwing up your holiday travel plans.
Airline employees are covered by the Railway Labor Act. Despite its name, the RLA covers both rail workers and airline employees and has significant differences from the labor law that regulates other US businesses. Most notably, it places severe restrictions on the ability of airline or railroad employees to go on strike when a contract expires.
The Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which represents more than 23,000 members at American has not overcome any of the many legal hurdles it needs to conquer before the union could strike. That’s the case even though union members have not gotten a raise since 2019.
If federally mediated union negotiations reach a point where no progress is being made at the table, the union or company management can ask federal meditators involved in talks to declare an “impasse.” The union can go on strike or management can lock out union workers only after a 30-day cooling off period that follows an impasse being declared.
That declaration of an impasse is what the union is arguing should happen now.
“The company has staked out a firm position on economic matters, and APFA has been clear that the company’s economic framework does not and will not work,” APFA President Julie Hedrick wrote in a letter to the federal agency overseeing talks. “No amount of future bargaining will change that, absent a release into a thirty-day cooling-off period.”
But American Airlines argued Monday that there is no impasse in talks and that negotiations should continue.
“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,” said the airline’s statement. “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… to reach an agreement that our flight attendants have earned.”
But even if the union gets its way and the federal mediators start the clock ticking towards a strike 30 day from now, there are additional barriers in the law that likely would block a strike from starting just before the year-end holidays.
Two sides remain far apart
The two sides are clearly still at odds. The union is demanding an immediate 35% pay raise and back pay, dating back to 2019. It also wants two additional 6% raises over the three-year life of the contract it is proposing.
The union says that American is offering its members an immediate 11% raise and additional 2% raises each year of a proposed five-year contract. The company did not respond to a request for comment on details of its offer.
But even if the flight attendants win their request to have the clock start ticking towards a strike 30 days from now, a strike then is not likely. The RLA would allow President Joe Biden to step in at the last moment and order workers to stay on the job for two additional month-long “cooling off periods” while a presidential panel comes up with recommendations as to how to settle the deadlock.
Despite Biden clearly siding with labor in some recent strikes, including the United Auto Workers union’s strike against General Motors, Ford and Stellantis, he’s not going to stand by and allow the nation’s largest airline to be shutdown right before the Christmas holiday.
If the two sides can’t reach a deal during that 60-day period, the union could then go on strike — but only if Congress stays on the sideline and allows the strike to take place. But it’s possible, and in the case of American Airlines, likely, that Congress would act to block a strike. That’s what happened with the freight railroads last December when Congress imposed a contract on the angry rail unions to keep the railroads operating.
It’s unlikely that Congress would allow any of the four major carriers to go on strike. When Southwest had a service meltdown over the holidays that forced it to ground more than half its scheduled flights, it sparked a Congressional hearing to look into the problem.
This doesn’t mean that the union and its members aren’t serious about going on strike if given the chance. Flight attendants have not only gone years without a raise, they’ve seen their jobs get significantly more difficult with a rise in disruptive, sometimes violent, passengers. AFPA said that in August 99.5% of members voted to authorize a strike, with 93% of members participating in the vote.
And the union’s demands are close to what other union groups have been winning in negotiations recently. Last month, flight attendants at Southwest Airlines won an immediate 20% raise, with retroactive pay. American recently agreed to a deal with the Allied Pilots Association, its pilots union, that gave those members an immediate 21% raise and pay increases topping 40% over the four-year life of that agreement.
A history of airline strikes
There have been airline strikes in the past, but because of the hurdle, they are very rare and generally with relatively small carriers.
Spirit Airlines pilots struck for a week in 2010, but the airline was much smaller then, with only about 1% of domestic air traffic at that time.
The last time a major airline was grounded by a strike was 25 years ago when Northwest Airlines pilots went on strike for two weeks. Northwest was then the fourth largest US airline, but back then there was far less consolidation in the industry.
Since 1998, the 11 largest US airlines have merged to become the four largest carriers today, including Southwest and American. Those two, along with Delta and United, carry about 80% of US air traffic between them.
And strike votes, in and of themselves, don’t mean that a union is going to go on strike.
Strike votes are a common negotiating tactic taken during talks. They virtually always pass by an overwhelming margin. But most negotiations are settled, even after a strike vote, without a work stoppage. Pilots at Delta, United and Southwest all approved strike votes, and quickly reached contracts with their significant raises without an impasse being declared in any of the talks.