Airline employees have a very powerful negotiating tool in order to get better pay, hours, and quality of life. They can, after clearing a lot of hurdles, strike, which essentially paralyzes the airline.
In some industries, a company can threaten to use non-union "scab" workers. That, however, is not a viable alternative when it comes to pilots or flight attendants as there are not significant numbers of people trained and certified to do those jobs sitting around waiting for fill-in work.
Striking, however, is not something airline employees do lightly, at least partially because they know the ill will they will create with passengers. In addition, under the federal Railway Labor Act, unions and their airlines must enter federal mediation to resolve their differences.
A union can request to be released from mediation, but even if that request is granted, there is a 30-day cooling-off period and steps that President Joe Biden could take to delay a strike. Still, while the timing may be long, American Airlines (AAL) - Get Free Report flight attendants have openly signaled that they are fed up.
At an all-company meeting after the airline reported earnings, flight attendants union President Julie Hedrick appeared with other flight attendants wearing red union shirts "meant to signify 'We Are Ready' (acronym: WAR)," View From the Wing reported.
She spoke during the open question and answer portion of the meeting and noted that flight attendants had not had a raise in five years.
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American Airlines and its flight attendants are at odds
American Airlines CEO Robert Isom addressed the issue, without being too specific, in answer to Hedrick's question.
"You are going to receive compensation and benefits that are best in the industry. You may say it’s not enough to match Delta or to match whoever it is. I understand. That’s why we negotiate,” he said,
Delta Airlines (DAL) - Get Free Report recently gave its flight attendants a 5% raise and laid out a schedule for future raises. Delta is broadly considered to have the highest compensation for flight attendants, but determining that is a bit relative as pay is not the only factor.
American Airlines flight attendants voted to authorize a strike with 99% of members approving a work stoppage. The union wants a 50% increase in wages.
"American Airlines has offered Delta-level wages including boarding pay along with increased profit sharing, increased training pay, and increased retirement contributions. The initial wage increase would be 11%, followed by 2% increases in each of the remaining years of the 5-year agreement," according to View From the Wing.
The union has revised its demands to a 35% initial increase with 6% increases each year after.
American Airlines flight attendants would use a 'CHAOS' strike
When a union strikes, that means its workers do not get paid. The American Airlines flight attendants union does not have the war chest needed to pay members in the event of a strike. That's why the union may try a different tactic, according to View From the Wing's Gary Leff.
He said that the flight attendants are not planning a traditional strike (even as they have publicly threatened one).
"They are planning to surprise the airline by not showing up to work specific flights, which may change day to day. It’s a tactic that rival union AFA-CWA calls CHAOS (‘Create Havoc Around Our System’). This allows most flight attendants to collect pay for most days of work, so that they do not have to endure financial strain that they’re less able to manage than the company is," he wrote.
The union would still need to be released from mediation and clear the cooling-off period before any labor action could take place.
This article originally appeared on The Street.