Travels Into Labor Unrest: Strike Fever Spreads To The Airline Industry

by | Feb 14, 2024 | Aerospace, Bargaining/Negotiations, Industry, Labor Relations Ink, Labor Relations Insight, Strikes, Travel, Trending, Union Leaders, Union Organizing, Unionized Company, Unions

Last year’s United Auto Workers (UAW) “stand-up strike” affected auto manufacturers and caused collateral damage in other industries, propelling unions in other spaces, such as airlines, into strike mode. There is no question that blustering UAW President Shawn Fain, despite not winning all he claimed for his members, has inspired other unions to threaten strikes, too. That contagious unease does not bode well for the aviation industry, which had already struggled with short staffing in post-pandemic mode.

Major airlines, which carry vacationers and business class travelers to destinations daily, could use a holiday. Tensions are particularly fraught for Alaska Air following the Boeing 737 Max 9 incident, which put union contract negotiations at Boeing on pause for machinists, and now there’s more.

A Day Of Action: Alaska Air’s woes further accelerated this week when cabin crew members authorized a strike for the first time since 1993. The vote happened during a Worldwide Flight Attendant Day of Action on Tuesday when workers joined protest pickets at over 30 major airports across the United States, impacting 24 airlines in the process.

The lead-up: Three labor unions previously expressed their intent to send 100,000 flight attendants out for the day of action at most major airlines, including American Airlines, United Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and Frontier. The picketing occurred everywhere, from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles and throughout the heartland.

A slight silver lining: Simply because a strike authorization has occurred, that doesn’t mean a strike is imminent in any industry. A walk-out will also be particularly difficult for flight attendants due to the complicated labor process of securing permission from the feds, which denied American Airlines cabin crew the ability to strike in 2023. If federal mediators eventually find that an impasse has occurred in Alaska Air’s negotiations with flight attendants, then officials will consider the matter. Again, it’s an intricate road to a strike.

Don’t breathe easy yet: Although Alaska Air is likely safe from a flight attendant strike for the time being, their woes will not come down to earth anytime soon. Unions seized upon the summer of 2022’s travel turmoil to put airlines’ backs against the wall regarding pilot salaries. This will likely keep flight attendant unions motivated enough to continue picketing.

The wider picture: Most major airlines are currently in union contract negotiations of some variety with workers. This includes at least two-thirds of U.S. flight attendants.

The outlier: Delta Airlines, the only major airline where flight attendants are not yet unionized, has received a message from Democratic lawmakers asking the airline to adopt a neutral stance towards union organizers. Three unions – the Association of Flight Attendants, the Teamsters, and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers – have expressed their mutual intent to lure 50,000 Delta workers into the fold.

Previously, Delta Flight Attendants repeatedly rejected unionizing, including during a high-profile organizing campaign in 2010. Last year, Delta was also impacted by the Hollywood strikes, so we will keep an eye on Big Labor’s attempts to move beyond unionizing the airline’s pilots.

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