Flight attendants picket at more than 30 airports in ‘unprecedented’ show of solidarity

picket sky harbor

Flight attendants picket at Sky harbor Airport. Photo by Sam Ellefson.

By Sam Ellefson

February 26, 2024

Hundreds of flight attendants picketed at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport last week, calling attention to stagnant wages with low purchasing power, poor working conditions, and their employers stalling on contract negotiations.

Flight attendants at Phoenix Sky Harbor on Feb. 13 picketed at three different airport locations, lining the curbs with signs that read “Corporate Greed Doesn’t Fly” and “1931 Days without a contract.”

It’s been more than 1,931 days—or just over five years —since flight attendants have received a raise in pay. Meanwhile, the airline companies they work for have raked in billions of dollars in profit, year after year.

And flight attendants are tired of waiting for their employers to show up to the negotiation table.

Overworked, underpaid

Alana Billingsley, a flight attendant who’s worked for American Airlines for 13 years and an organizer with the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA), said the plight of flight attendants has been exasperated by prolonged contract negotiations and a law that makes it incredibly difficult for airline employees to strike.

“I hope that American Airlines will see—and really, just all the airlines will see—that we are united,” Billingsley said. “And that our neighbors, the people of our community will see that we’re fighting a battle that is not uncommon to the same battles that they’re seeing in their workplace.” It’s corporate greed. It’s bosses that are under-valuing people and trying to work them harder than they ever have before.”

Why they can’t go on strike

The Day of Action did not include a work stoppage because, under the Railway Labor Act (RLA), flight attendants must be given approval to strike by a mediation board after efforts to negotiate a contract have been exhausted. Billingsley said the airlines have used this nearly 100-year-old law to their advantage to stall contract negotiations because the likelihood of the mediation board approving a strike is low.

“They don’t don’t have any incentive to give us a contract until they’re forced to,” Billingsley said. “Because—you know, the moment they start paying us more, that starts eating into their returns, right? And [Robert] Isom, who is our new CEO, he [came] into the position and gave himself a raise, and then almost immediately gave himself an $11 million bonus.”

Michael Massoni, first vice president of the Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 556, part of the union representing over 20,000 Southwest Airlines flight attendants, echoed Billingsley’s sentiment that airlines are leaning on the RLA to avoid giving flight attendants a new, fair contract.

“The airlines have weaponized the RLA, because they know how hard it is for us to strike,” Massoni said. “So what they do is they have these long protracted contract negotiations — like ours, five years long. And they know that they have this law on their side, so they can just continue to draw it out and draw it out and draw it out, until it gets to a point where morale is so low and it impacts the customer base.”

Union continues mediation efforts

Massoni said that the union has two meetings with mediators this month where representatives will work toward getting a fair and equitable contract for members. Billingsley said that the APFA has a meeting with the National Mediation Board in March, where the union will ask for a release to strike.

“If something good doesn’t come from those talks, I would not be surprised if we ask for a release from the mediators,” Massoni said. “Right now we are at a place where we have a bogey here, which is the pilot agreement. And we expect Southwest Airlines to come through and show us the same respect that they gave their pilots — and that’s in work rules and pay and compensation.”

If a strike is authorized by the mediation board, the airlines and the unions enter a “30-day cooling-off period” where contract negotiations are ramped up in an effort to avoid a strike, Billingsley said. After 30 days, flight attendants will be free to walk off the job. Billingsley said the unions could strike certain flights or airports or go on a rolling strike, similar to the historic UAW strike last year.

What flight attendants want

The disparity of pay between flight attendants and airline executives, coupled with issues with proper compensation for working time and long hours, have pushed morale to an all-time low, said Massoni.

“They reward themselves all the time with bonuses for hitting their profitability targets,” Massoni said. “Well, it’s time for them to share.”

Airlines, however, emphasized that negotiations remain open and proposals for a new contract have been on the table for months.

“We appreciate and respect our flight attendants’ right to picket and understand that is their way of telling us the importance of getting a contract done — and we hear them,” American Airlines spokesperson Tim Wetzel said in a statement to The Copper Courier

“The proposal we’ve had on the table since September 2023 includes increased pay, the addition of boarding pay, and other meaningful improvements. We remain at the negotiating table, ready to make a deal — and we are confident that we will reach a new agreement soon.”

But the offer extended by American Airlines falls short of what flight attendants are asking for, according to Billingsley of the APFA.

“The economic framework that they’ve presented was not enough,” she said. “And the workloads that they were proposing changes on just didn’t didn’t equate to a good work life balance for flight attendants.”

Similarly, Southwest Airlines has offered a contract that spokesperson Chriss Perry described as “an industry-leading tentative agreement.” But Massoni said a recent tentative agreement with Southwest wasn’t ratified by members.

“The informational picketing earlier this week was not a walkout as all participants were off duty. Job actions are severely limited through the Railway Labor Act, which governs airline labor contracts,” said Perry. “Southwest has an award-winning culture that respects our employees and allows them to express their opinions in a cordial manner.”

Should negotiations continue to stall, the unions could ask for a release from the mediation board to go on strike. If the mediation board approves, the unions and the airlines will engage in a month-long period of heightened negotiations in order to reach an agreement and avoid a work stoppage. After that, flight attendants could walk off the job.

Author

  • Sam Ellefson

    Sam Ellefson is the labor reporter for the Copper Courier. He's pursuing a master's degree in investigative journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and works as a research and communications aide for the Center for Work and Democracy at ASU. He's worked as a research aide at the Reynolds Center for Business Journalism, as a reporter for the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism, and as the editor of State Press Magazine.

CATEGORIES: LABOR POLITICS | POLITICS

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