Three separate unions representing flight attendants at major U.S. airlines picketed and held rallies at 30 airports Tuesday as they push for new contracts and higher wages.
The flight attendants are increasingly frustrated that pilots won huge pay raises last year while they continue to work for wages that, in some cases, have not increased in several years.
They argue that they have not been rewarded for working through the pandemic and being responsible for the safety of passengers.
The unions are calling Tuesday’s protests a national day of action. It is not a strike — federal law makes it difficult for airline unions to conduct legal strikes.
The unions planned to picket at some of the nation’s busiest airports in New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles and elsewhere.
“We haven’t had a raise in five years. Our flight attendants have seen the very rich contracts that the pilots did get, and they expect American Airlines to come to the table,” said Julie Hedrick, president of the union at American.
Pilots had tremendous leverage in winning big raises because of a shortage. It takes years of flying for pilots to meet requirements to work for an airline. That is not the case for flight attendants. Airlines have bragged in the past about how many people apply when they advertise openings for flight attendants.
Tuesday’s protests were organized by Hedrick's union, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants; and the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents crews at United Airlines, Alaska Airlines and several other carriers; and the Transport Workers Union, which represents crews at Southwest.
The unions have conducted strike votes to put pressure on company negotiators, but of course management knows that airline strikes can be delayed or blocked by federal mediators, the president and Congress.
Mediators have already turned down one request by flight attendants at American Airlines to begin a countdown to a strike. The union is seeking immediate pay raises of 33%, followed by four annual increases of 6% each. American's last offer, in September, was 18% upfront including boarding pay, followed by annual raises of 2%.
At Southwest, attendants rejected a deal that their union negotiators reached with the airline — it would have raised pay about 35% over five years.
Flight attendants also want to be paid during the time that passengers board the plane. Only Delta Air Lines, whose attendants are nonunion, currently pays during boarding. At other U.S. carriers, hourly pay for crews starts when the passengers are seated and the plane doors close.
American Airlines' September offer included half-pay during boarding time.
“We appreciate and respect our flight attendants’ right to picket and understand that is their way of telling us the importance of getting a contract done — and we hear them,” American said in a statement Tuesday. The airline said it intends to reach a deal that would put flight attendant pay “at the top of the industry.”
Southwest said it reached “an industry-leading tentative agreement” with its union last fall, only to see the deal rejected. The airline said it is scheduled to meet with union representatives and federal mediators again next week “to continue working toward an agreement that benefits our Flight Attendants and Southwest.”
Union leaders say they need large wage increases to catch up with inflation.
“We negotiated the contract that we’re working under back in 2014, when the cost of rent was much different, the cost of food was much less,” Hedrick said. “Here we are, 10 years later, trying to get a contract done so that our flight attendants can survive.”
Lyn Montgomery, president of the union at Southwest, said crews need to be compensated because their work is getting harder.
“Flying these days is not fun,” she said. “It’s chaotic. It’s crowded. We’re late, (flights are) delayed. We are tired and exhausted.”