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AA Flight Attendants Move Closer to Unionised Strike Action, but Which Members Benefit?

The results of a flight attendant strike authorisation vote at American Airlines are due to be announced on Wednesday, following a more than four-week voting period.

Negotiations between the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (AFPA) – which represents more than 26,000 American Airlines flight attendants – and the world’s largest airline were halted during the pandemic but resumed in 2021. AA and the union applied for federal mediation in contract negotiations in March. In July, APFA announced that a strike authorization vote would be held. If this vote passes, the union is allowed to call a strike, though this doesn’t necessarily mean it will take industrial action.

Julie Hedrick, National President of APFA told reporters that since contracts became amenable in 2019, “American’s Flight Attendants have not received cost-of-living increases or any other quality-of-life improvements, even as they played an essential part in keeping American in the skies both during and after the pandemic.”

The union is demanding an immediate 35% pay increase, with 6% annual pay increases in subsequent years, and for flight attendants to receive boarding pay, and increased pay for working international flights and premium cabins, among other perks.

A unionised flight attendant strike is not unprecedented in the history of American Airlines. In fact, it is nearly two months until the 30th anniversary of the last strike by the APFA, when AA flight attendants walked out for five days. Starting on November 18, 1993, nearly 21,000 flight attendants stayed grounded in protest for a fairer contract.

1993 American Airlines' flight attendants on strike.

Many of the issues that American Airlines’ flight attendants faced 30 years ago are still present today, with AFPA representation arguably offering very little benefit to its dues-paying membership.

Flight attendants now endure increased pressures due to current economic challenges and the lasting impacts of the pandemic, yet, the APFA union hasn’t managed to secure a pay rise since 2019. Moreover, proper compensation is now more important than ever as the occupation of flight attendants becomes increasingly dangerous due to rising levels of in-flight violence.

However, the demands of APFA are unlikely to be met anytime soon, with a 50%+ pay rise for flight attendants being requested over the next few years, a rise which management is strongly resistant to – creating an impasse. Ultimately, the two parties have been stuck in negotiations for months, and all that APFA has accomplished for its members during this period is the announcement of false promises.

Importantly, it will be American Airline’s junior flight attendants who risk suffering as a result of this strike action, with unions frequently prioritising senior staff. Junior members typically don’t have the cash reserves to sit out work, and the union lacks substantial money in the bank.

The argument arises: to what extent do unions represent the interests of flight attendants? The threat of strikes places more junior crew at American Airlines in a precarious position, with less savings to be able to sit out a strike. Meanwhile, crew at Delta – who are not unionised – were granted a 5% pay rise this April, on top of an earlier pay rise in 2019 and special profit-sharing measures.

However, the real difference between APFA and Delta staff’s treatment can be observed in boarding pay. In May this year, Delta announced that their non-unionised flight attendants would be paid for the boarding process – a step that still hasn’t been taken by American Airlines

Delta management recognised that junior crew were especially disadvantaged by the lack of pay for boarding since domestic flights, which are generally staffed by less experienced flight attendants, require similar time to board as international services but are much shorter, so flight attendants receive less overall compensation.

The no boarding pay system benefits senior flight attendants taking longer flights through the exploitation of junior crew, and most crucially, is supported by unions.

A recent picket held by American Airlines' flight attendants.

The lack of pay rise for flight attendants since 2019 is unacceptable and wages must be increased for crew at American Airlines. Yet, equally as troubling is the APFA’s thus-far inability to secure these increased wages for members and the union’s record of prioritising greater benefits for senior members while junior staff continue to be underpaid.

Tomorrow, informational pickets will take place at American’s 12 U.S. flight attendant bases and the results of the strike authorization vote will be announced. Whether the APFA plans to strike or not is still uncertain, however, American Airline’s 27,000 flight attendants have made it clear that they are ready for a change.

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