Airline employees are covered by the Railway Labor Act. Despite its name, the RLA covers both rail workers and airline employees and has significant differences from the labor law that regulates other US businesses. Most notably, it places severe restrictions on the ability of airline or railroad employees to go on strike when a contract expires.
The Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which represents more than 23,000 members at American has not overcome any of the many legal hurdles it needs to conquer before the union could strike. That’s the case even though union members have not gotten a raise since 2019.
If federally mediated union negotiations reach a point where no progress is being made at the table, the union or company management can ask federal meditators involved in talks to declare an “impasse.” The union can go on strike or management can lock out union workers only after a 30-day cooling off period that follows an impasse being declared.
That declaration of an impasse is what the union is arguing should happen now.
“The company has staked out a firm position on economic matters, and APFA has been clear that the company’s economic framework does not and will not work,” APFA President Julie Hedrick wrote in a letter to the federal agency overseeing talks. “No amount of future bargaining will change that, absent a release into a thirty-day cooling-off period.”
But American Airlines argued Monday that there is no impasse in talks and that negotiations should continue.
“Since resuming negotiations in 2021, the company has routinely met with APFA and presented proposals that maintain our commitment to paying our team members well and competitively,” said the airline’s statement. “For months now, we’ve had an industry-leading economic proposal on the table, and we continue to make progress on other items, including as recently as last week. We stand ready to continue working with APFA… to reach an agreement that our flight attendants have earned.”
But even if the union gets its way and the federal mediators start the clock ticking towards a strike 30 day from now, there are additional barriers in the law that likely would block a strike from starting just before the year-end holidays.
Two sides remain far apart
The two sides are clearly still at odds. The union is demanding an immediate 35% pay raise and back pay, dating back to 2019. It also wants two additional 6% raises over the three-year life of the contract it is proposing.