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American Giving Flight Attendants Free Bowl of Chili If They Don't Picket...

Date: January 18, 2023

By Gary Leff, View From The Wing

On January 24th, American Airlines flight attendants will be conducting ‘informational picketing’ at the airline’s hubs and also in Boston and San Francisco. They’re unhappy with the time it’s taken to get a new contract, and that American Airlines flat out rejects many of the changes to work rules their union proposes.

American, for its part, has been telling cabin crew that on the same day as the picketing they’ll be serving free chili inside the airport which flight attendants have taken to mean they can have chili if they don’t show up to protest.

In fairness, though, the chili service starts before the picketing. Flight attendants will only be outside from 11 a.m. – 1 p.m. local time at each airport. That doesn’t show much dedication, which perhaps is why some fear they can be peeled off with chili.

One flight attendant asks whether there will be corn bread as well? It seems to me that chili is pretty cheap, that maybe they could tempt flight attendants with a salad and dessert course too.  Plus, that would take longer to eat and make free food more of a tradeoff with showing up at the union event. Oddly the union appears to be accepting non-employees to show up at their picketing, too. The optional pre-registration form asks whether the person is an employee or not, and if not what their job is.

American Airlines flight attendants have a generally weak union. Sara Nelson’s larger Association of Flight Attendants has eyed coming in and taking over. AFA-CWA even sent masks to legacy US Airways flight attendants during the pandemic, telling me they still consider those crewmembers to be members of their union. It’s no wonder that they aren’t seeing the concessions they’re after from American Airlines in contract negotiations.

The complaints they highlight:

  • More work inflight than ever before. American’s flight attendants resisted bringing back service into the cabin. For the airline’s widebody aircraft, and cross-country premium Airbus A321Ts, American actually reduced staffing levels during the pandemic and hasn’t brought those levels back to they were even as they’ve brought back service.

  • Not enough flight attendants mean brutal schedules. While American is hiring flight attendants, they shed staff during the pandemic (even though $10 billion in direct taxpayer cash to the airline was supposed to mean keeping everyone employed). Though flight schedules are nearly back to full 2019 levels, staffing is not. (Fewer union members, and by the way flight attendants are behind in their union dues.) As a result, they face longer duty days and less rest.

  • Too much time without a pay increase. Their contract was up for renegotiation before the pandemic. The pandemic delayed it, and the union hasn’t had significant leverage. The longer the airline goes without a new contract, the lower its costs.

Ultimately they aren’t in a strong bargaining position, though any contract will be an improvement. The union claims picketing will ‘turn up the heat’ and it will generate some attention, that attention will dissipate, and at the end of the day they’re not nearly in the bargaining position of pilots or even of mechanics (who disrupted the airline’s 2019 summer with work slowdowns). American seems to agree, since they’re only willing to spring for chili.

In contrast, United Airlines CEO (and former American President) Scott Kirby went down to meet with his airline’s pilots when they were picketing. Don’t except American’s CEO Robert Isom to walk down to an unscripted meet with flight attendants.

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