As the busy summer travel season approaches, 25,000 union pilots at two of the nation’s largest commercial airlines — American and Southwest — are taxiing on the runway of a potential strike.
Last week, the Allied Pilots Association (APA), which represents 15,000 pilots at American Airlines, announced that its members had voted overwhelmingly to authorize a work stoppage. Signaling their unity, thousands of uniformed APA members held informational pickets on May Day at ten of the nation’s major airports, including Chicago’s O’Hare and Boston’s Logan.
“With more than 99% of participating pilots voting in favor of authorizing a strike, our pilots’ resolve is unmistakable,” said Capt. Ed Sicher, APA president. “We will not be deterred from our goal of an industry-leading contract.”
Also on May 1, the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA), representing 10,000 pilots at that airline, began its own strike authorization vote — the first in the union’s 45-year history — that will conclude on May 31. The move comes after Southwest Airlines experienced an operational meltdown over the Christmas holiday, with over 16,700 flights cancelled and 2 million passengers stranded.
“The decision to authorize a strike is not one we have taken lightly, but given the lack of accountability and dearth of leadership exhibited by our current executives, we felt that this was a last resort to try to force them to face the issues plaguing our passengers, our frontline employees, and our pilots,” explained SWAPA President Capt. Casey Murray.
Like the railroad unions, whose threatened strike last year was preemptively blocked by Congress and President Joe Biden, unions in the airline industry are subject to the complex bargaining process of the 1926 Railway Labor Act. That law requires several steps before either APA or SWAPA could legally go on strike — including federal mediation, a review by a Presidential Emergency Board, and multiple “cooling off” periods — meaning any possible work stoppages are still at least several months away.
The last time American Airlines pilots went on strike was in February 1997. It lasted only a few minutes before President Bill Clinton issued an emergency suspension.
Still, the strike votes are illustrative of a larger wave of worker militancy in the airline industry that has only grown since the pandemic.
At United, pilots represented by the large Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) voted to reject a tentative agreement last fall, sending the union and management back to the negotiating table. Bargaining continues, but so far the union has not held a strike vote.
Pilots at Delta, also with ALPA, voted to authorize a strike last year, then won a new contract this March that includes 34% pay increases. Delta’s flight attendants, fleet service workers and mechanics are all non-union — but a coalition of the Association of Flight Attendants, International Association of Machinists and Teamsters is currently working to change that through an ambitious organizing campaign.
Meanwhile, airport service workers such as ticketing agents, cleaning staff, baggage handlers, wheelchair agents and food workers have been successfully organizing around better pay and conditions for the past several years through SEIU’s Airport Workers United campaign. In March, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García (D-Ill.) reintroduced the Good Jobs for Good Airports Act, which would establish a $15 dollar-per-hour minimum wage at the nation’s airports.
“Quality of life”
Contract negotiations at American and Southwest have dragged on for four years and three years, respectively.
Pilots are primarily concerned with quality-of-life issues like having more reliable schedules, as their trips are often unexpectedly extended and their destinations can change at the last minute due to poor planning by the airlines.
They are also pushing for more flexibility in their assigned work hours so they won’t “time out” in the middle of a delay caused by weather or mechanical issues. For safety reasons, flight crews have legal maximum duty hours, after which they are required to get rest. When flight departures are postponed by unforeseen conditions, pilots sometimes hit their maximum hours and must be replaced, which only exacerbates the delay for passengers.
“The airline doesn’t build any cushion in the schedule,” APA representative Dan Koller told In These Times. “The airline builds the schedule based on the theory that everything will go perfectly as they designed it. How often does that happen in the airline industry?”
Apparently trying to go around the bargaining table, American CEO Robert Isom has sent messages directly to rank-and-file pilots promising large pay increases similar to what Delta pilots recently secured in their new contract.
APA leadership has pushed back, telling union members in an email last week: “Make no mistake — the money will be there. American Airlines has no choice if it wants to compete in the market for new-hire pilots.”
“Do not let management try to close this deal by dangling the prospect of big pay raises,” union leaders continued. “The real fight is to ensure that our pilots’ schedules are respected so we can have the quality of life we deserve.”
Southwest pilots are tying their contract fight to the airline’s epic breakdown late last December, which they blame on corporate executives’ refusal to heed their warnings.
“Years in the making, this meltdown happened because Southwest’s management lost touch with its employees and became fixated on accounting metrics, stock buybacks and institutional investors,” Murray, SWAPA’s president, wrote at the time. “This meltdown was predictable and preventable, and the pilots of Southwest saw it coming.”
Testifying on the meltdown before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation this February, Murray called Southwest “a massive, complex operation held together by duct tape and baling wire.”
In a statement on SWAPA’s current strike vote, Southwest’s vice president of labor relations, Adam Carlisle, said: “Our negotiations continue, with talks resuming this week, and we’ll keep working with the assistance of the National Mediation Board to reach an agreement that rewards our Pilots and places them competitively in the industry.”
American Airlines issued a similar statement about its own pilots’ recent strike vote, saying: “We understand that a strike authorization vote is one of the important ways pilots express their desire to get a deal done and we respect the message of voting results. Importantly, the results don’t change our commitment or distract us from working expeditiously to complete a deal.”
“Don’t tell me that after four years [of negotiations] they’re working ‘expeditiously’ to close this out because it just doesn’t add up, and I don’t think the public believes it either,” APA President Sicher told Fox News last week.
“We fly the airplanes. You want to know how to make a reliable operation? Talk to our pilots. We’ve been speaking about win-win solutions now for years,” Sicher continued. “We’re just befuddled as to why management won’t agree to them.”
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Jeff Schuhrke is a labor historian, educator, journalist and union activist who teaches at the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies, SUNY Empire State University in New York City. He has been an In These Times contributor since 2013. Follow him on Twitter @JeffSchuhrke.