Flight Attendants At American Airlines Subsidiary Threaten To Strike

Workers at Piedmont Airlines say their wages are too low to live on. Now they might join other striking workers.

Three hundred flight attendants at American Airlines subsidiary Piedmont Airlines have voted to authorize a strike by an overwhelming margin, according to their union.

The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA) said Thursday that 100% of workers who cast ballots approved of striking if Piedmont Airlines doesn’t offer them a satisfactory contract. The workers have been trying to secure a new collective bargaining agreement with the regional carrier for three years, with negotiations interrupted by the pandemic.

“Flight attendants are pretty fed up with what’s been going on,” Keturah Johnson, a flight attendant and president of the union’s local affiliate for Piedmont workers, told HuffPost. “Right now, they can’t afford to work for Piedmont. The company doesn’t care for us, and they’re stalling negotiations.”

A spokesperson for Maryland-based Piedmont Airlines said the company, which is part of American Airlines’ American Eagle group of regional carriers, planned to return to the bargaining table with the union in November.

"We have the most professional Flight Service professionals in the industry, and Piedmont is a leader in safety and performance because of their efforts," Crystal Byrd, the spokesperson, said in an email. "We are in agreement our team members deserve the best contract and we are committed to delivering that to them."

A strike authorization doesn’t necessarily mean workers will end up walking off the job. It’s an escalation tactic that gives the union’s leadership the leeway to call a strike if they see fit.

“Flight attendants are pretty fed up.”

- Keturah Johnson, president of the AFA Piedmont union

Ten thousand workers at agricultural equipment manufacturer John Deere went on strike last week after rejecting a deal their union negotiated. Roughly 60,000 film and television workers have also threatened to go on strike, though a work stoppage has been averted for now after their union reached a tentative agreement over the weekend.

Airline workers must go through a special process before initiating a work stoppage, since a strike could have ripple effects for passengers across the country. Federal regulators will review the case and decide whether the two parties have reached an impasse and should be released from mediation. If so, they can allow the union to carry out a legal strike after a 30-day “cooling off” period.

In the vast majority of airline-related cases, the union and the employer avoid a work stoppage. But if a strike comes to pass, it could be a major nuisance for Piedmont and its parent company, American.

The AFA deploys its own strike strategy known as CHAOS, which stands for “create havoc around our system.” Rather than all flight attendants walking off at once, the union carries out intermittent, surprise strikes by small crews of workers that lead to flight cancellations. The strategy bedevils the targeted employer without causing widespread disruption across airlines and airports.

AFA first used CHAOS against Alaska Airlines in 1993, when it rattled the carrier by striking just seven seemingly random flights over the course of nine months, eventually securing a new contract.

An American Eagle commuter jet takes off at Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia.
An American Eagle commuter jet takes off at Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia.
Joshua Roberts via Reuters

Workers in certain industries are enjoying a moment of leverage due to a tighter-than-expected labor market amid the pandemic. Some employers say they’ve had a hard time finding workers to meet demand, giving their workforces an auspicious time to withhold their labor to secure good raises or other gains. That certainly appears to be the case in the airline industry, where staffing shortages have contributed to delays.

One common theme in recent strikes ― including those at Deere and food makers Kellogg’s and Nabisco ― is employers’ use of “two-tier” compensation systems, in which workers are divided into separate classes and offered different pay rates and benefits. Some workers have rebelled against these systems saying there should be equal pay for equal work.

Johnson said there is a two-tier system at work in the Piedmont dispute: the different pay for workers at mainline carriers like American versus their regional carriers like Piedmont, which fly between big hubs and smaller airports. The AFA says flight attendants at regional carriers earn 45% less in pay and benefits on average, even though they wear the uniforms of the major carriers.

According to Johnson, many attendants end up earning less than they could working full-time at retailers like Target. She said a lot of workers can’t afford to get hotel rooms or shared apartments when they commute from other cities to the airline’s crew bases in Philadelphia and Charlotte, North Carolina, the night before work.

“Flight attendants are sleeping in their cars at the airport,” she said. “We’ve created a food bank in Philadelphia. We say, ‘Take what you need, and give what you can.’”

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