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As Flight Attendants Struggle to Reach Pay Deals, Are Unions Worth It?

For workers at many of the major US airlines, 2023 was definied by the looming threat of strike action and seemingly neverending contract negotiatons. Flight attendants from American Airlines, United, and Southwest all took to the picket lines last year to voice their frustration about inadequate pay offer.


Now it looks as though these industrial tensions are set to escalate in 2024. On Tuesday, Southwest flight attendants – organized by the Transport Workers of America (TWA) – voted 98% in favor of strike action, marking the frist time in the union’s history that flight attendants authorized a strike against a company.

17,143 Southwest flight attendants voted in support of strike action after rejecting a contract offer by the airline in December.

Meanwhile cabin crew at American Airlines have requested permission from the National Mediation Board (the government body tasked with overseeing labor disputes in the transport industry) to officially go on strike. American’s 27,000 flight attendants are represented by the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA).


Notably in both these disputes, the flight attendants have unionized. This is not the case at all US airlines: cabin crew at Delta have no external represnation, and yet staff there have received two pay rises since 2021 and earn on average $5,000 more than their contemporaries at other airlines.


So with labor disputes likely to dominate the headlines for the year to come, we at USTN thought we’d break down the pros and cons of union representation for airline workers.


PRO: Unions give collective bargaining power


Perhaps the most widely recognized advantage of joining a union is the representation provided in salary negotiations and the ability for workers to take collective action if they feel their company isn’t listening to them.


The fundamental premise of a labor union is that workers have more power together and that this power can be leveraged to demand higher salaries and better working conditions. Unions can also afford to higher expert negotiators to ensure workers get the best representation.


Finally, if things don’t go your way, you can always strike. Although it’s worth remembering that airline workers are governed by the Railway Labor Act, which requires unions to seek permission from the National Mediation Board, a government body, before being able to take industrial action.


The last major strike by flight attendants was back in 1993, when 21,000 American Airlines cabin crew walked out for five days just before Thanksgiving. The current crop of AA flight attendants have recently found out for themselves that it isn’t as easy as packing your bags and walking out.


CON: Union negotiations often drag on for years and don’t always provide bigger salaries


In reality, union representation doesn’t necessarily guarantee better salaries for airline workers. In fact, flight attendants starting at Delta currently make $5,400 more per year than their unionized peers at United and American Airlines. 


At the top of the pay scale, after 12 years of service, Delta flight attendants can expect to make $77,505 – over $10,000 more than their contemporaries at American Airlines ($66,372) and United ($67,412).


Additionally, union contract negotiations often stretch on for years, with the AFA’s current dispute over flight attendant salaries at United lasting in excess of 790 days. From 2007, AFA spent nine years negotiation a second contract for just 2,200 flight attendants at Spirit Airlines, while Southwest and the IAM were locked in a contract dispute for four and half years for their 8,300 above-wing and reservation agents.


By comparison, Delta flight attendants have received 12 base pay increases in the past 15 years. The most recent of these, in March 2023, involved $7 billion in cumulative increases to wages and benefits over four years.


PRO: Unions provide legal support and advice


Labor unions provide an important support system to many workers who have been unfairly treated by their employers. Such mistreatment might include wrongful termination, sexual harassment, or racial and gender discrimination. In these instances, labor unions can provide access to legal resources, support services, and compensation funds to help workers recover from their experience or seek restitution from their employer.


It’s important to note that these kinds of issues are not unique to the aviation industry and that most companies manage to deal with such matters through internal human resources policies and within the framework of state and federal laws. 


CON: Unions create a barrier between workers and the company


By their very nature, labor unions create distance between company executives and workers: setting the terms for salary negotiations and working conditions without necessarily taking into account workers’ individual needs. This can ironically lead to workers feeling less represented at their workplaces rather than more.


Big unions like TWA or the International Brotherhood of Teamsters represent workers from hundreds of companies across numerous industries, making it difficult to respond to the needs of specific workgroups. They also often engage in political battles, bankrolling candidates in national and local elections. The decision of  which political candidates to support is taken by union leaders and might be at odds with the individual political feelings of many of their members. 


Most alarmingly, once a union is elected to represent your workgroup, they can call for your dismissal under a ‘union security clause’. This means that if you decide you don’t want to pay for union representation or other non-membership fees, the union can require the company to terminate your employment without any recourse.


PRO: Unions allow workers to be part of a wider industry network


Big unions like AFA, the Interational Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM), and the Teamsters represent workers from numerous airlines across the United States, as well as other transport and logistics industries. Union representatives for these companies are able to come together and share best practices, negotiation tactics, and industry insights that can lead to better working conditions for their members.


Unions also provide the opportunity for members to connect with each other at meetings and provide a platform for mentorship and guidance for younger workers, as well as a learning environment for workers to expand their capabilities.   


CON: Union dues are expensive


Once a union is elected to represent your workforce, typically by a 50% +1 margin, you have to pay your dues - regardless of whether you actually voted to be in the union. If you don’t, the union can even force your company to fire you (see above).


In the aviation industry, union dues can vary wildly as there is no law preventing unions from increasing costs and expenditures. Flight attendants represented by the AFA can expect to pay $50 a month, or about $600 a year.


Meanwhile, technicians represented by the Teamsters union typically pay 2.5 hours’ worth of base pay per month. As an example, a TechOps employee just starting their career at Delta Air Lines would pay $75 per month if workers at the airline voted for union representation. At the top of the ladder, a senior technician at Delta would be paying the Teamsters $128 a month, or $1,536 per year. That’s enough for a roundtrip Delta flight between New York and Los Angeles in Comfort+ class.

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