If American Airlines Doesn’t Strike A Deal By Early June, Flight Attendants Will Be Released To Strike
If American Airlines Doesn’t Strike A Deal By Early June, Flight Attendants Will Be Released To Strike

View from the Wing

American Airlines flight attendants haven’t had a raise since 2019, when their contract became amendable. First delayed by the pandemic, negotiations on a new deal have been protracted, while the value of their wages have eroded. Some new crewmembers are even eligible for food stamps.

Flight Attendants voted to authorize a strike with nearly 99.5% casting a ballot in favor back in August. The union asked the National Mediation Board to declare an impasse in the fall, hoping to be allowed to strike over the peak Christmas holiday. This was denied. Subsequent requests haven’t received a formal answer.

Now we’re about to see a lot of movement.

  • The Biden administration is pushing to get a deal done. The President has appointed a majority of the National Mediation Board. On the one hand he needs union support for re-election. On the other hand a strike will hurt him politically, and also hurt the economy (which will further hurt him politically). He has the power to halt a strike.

  • The airline and flight attendants are closer to a deal than ever. American has increased its economy offer. The union, whose officers have been securely re-elected, have softened their rhetoric.

  • The parties are negotiating in D.C. this month, and have reportedly been told that if they do not get a deal done by early June the National Mediation Board will declare an impasse and release the parties to ‘self-help’.

    The board has issued an unusual ultimatum to American and to Gate Gourmet, a major airline caterer that is negotiating with its own union workers, one person briefed on the discussions said. NMB has specifically warned the companies that they could be released from mediation if the two sides don’t come to a deal around the beginning of June, the person said.

If the National Mediation Board declares an impasse in early June, that would start the clock on a 30-day “cooling off period.” The earliest flight attendants would be able to strike is early July. My bet is waiting a few days after the end of the month’s negotiation sessions conclude, if there’s no deal, allows the Biden administration to avoid disruptions over the Fourth of July holiday.

The union has talked with members not about a full-scale strike, but targeting specific flights which could change day-by-day. That way the vast majority of flight attendants could continue earning their pay, while still inflicting damage on the airline (whose customers wouldn’t know whether their flights would operate or not). The union doesn’t have the cash reserves to fund a full strike and union members lack the resources to be out of work without pay. Here’s what that kind of strike looks like.

Negotiations will take place Thursday and Friday of this week, and next Tuesday through Friday.

  • American has framed their offer as ‘matching’ the best pay in the industry, not exceeding it. They have focused on Delta pay, not the latest Southwest contract. It’s messy comparing different airline pay systems, and under certain conditions Delta still pays more. Regardless, even adopting Delta’s pay structure ‘plus 1%’ would mean paying flight attendants less than Delta because Delta’s profits are larger and so their profit sharing will be greater.

  • Flight attendants want retro pay, applying increases to the four and a half years since their last raise. Southwest flight attendants surprisingly got similar retro pay. American resists this.

  • Other areas of difference remain, such as increases to per diem payments while flight attendants are on trips.

There’s a deal to be had that matches the best pay in the industry plus some amount and that offers some form of signing bonus whether or not it’s full retro pay. We’re entering the zone of possible agreement, and the National Mediation Board is ratcheting up the pressure on American by setting a deadline at which point they’d be permitted to strike.

President Biden would have a hard time ordering the union not to strike as President Clinton did to American Airlines pilots in 1997. He also pressured American Airlines flight attendants and the airline to agree to binding arbitration, rather than striking, in 1993.

American Airlines board member Doug Steenland knows how to play hardball with labor though with knowledge that a strike could be coming for over a year American doesn’t appear to have made plans to replace cabin crew like British Airways did in 2010.

There’s a good chance that a deal could be close, and the current tough talk from the National Mediation Board doesn’t just exert leverage to get something done it also signals solidarity with labor and an opportunity to claim credit for forestalling a strike – which probably couldn’t be delayed past the election and is better for electoral politics to risk now than in October in any case.

Gary Leff

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