American Airlines flight attendants are requesting the right to strike in the middle of holidays

American Airlines flight attendants are asking federal officials for the right to strike, possibly before the end of the Christmas and New Year rush, but American said there was “no possibility” of a work stoppage over the holidays.

Leaders of the flight attendants union say they are frustrated by the lack of progress in negotiations on a new contract for workers who have not seen pay increases since 2019.

The Association of Professional Flight Attendants asked the Mediation Board on Monday to declare negotiations deadlocked and give the union permission to strike after a 30-day “cooling off” period.

Meanwhile, pilots at Southwest opened a “strike center” in Dallas this week. Officials with the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association say they will also ask for the right to strike if they don’t have a contract with the airline within the next few days.

A digital clock on the wall of the pilots’ union headquarters ticked down toward a potential strike on Dec. 29.

However, it is far from certain that any of the unions will strike. Federal law makes it very difficult for airline workers to walk off the job or for airlines to lock out workers.

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Strikes and lockouts are legal only if federal mediators take the rare step of declaring that negotiations are at an impasse and that either side can resort to “self-help.” Even then, the president or Congress can block a strike that could hurt the economy.

The last strike by a US aviation union took place in 2010, involving pilots at Spirit Airlines.

American disputed the flight attendants’ union’s claim that negotiations have stalled. In a statement, the airline said it has been offering the union an “industry-leading financial proposal” for months and progress continues on other contract points.

The airline, which is based in Fort Worth, said it is ready to continue working with the union and the National Mediation Board to reach an agreement.

American added that there is “no possibility” of a strike over Thanksgiving or the December holidays.

The flight attendants union is asking American for immediate 35% raises and then 6% annual raises under a 3-year deal. American offers 11% up front, but says it’s 18% including higher pay for the time passengers board planes, followed by annual increases of 2%. The union also wants larger 401(k) contributions and increased rest time.

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American pilots recently won raises of more than 40% over four years.

“We certainly don’t feel any equality here,” says Erik Harris, treasurer of the flight attendants’ union. “Why have the pilots got their deal and we haven’t?”

Pilot unions have been in a particularly strong position because of a shortage that is felt most at smaller airlines. Pilots at American rejected an offer last November. They reached another agreement in late July, which was renegotiated again to match a better deal for pilots at United Airlines. Pilots at Delta Air Lines also won big pay raises this year.

Because of pattern bargaining, Southwest pilots will likely end up with pay raises similar to those approved for American Airlines pilots. The union at Southwest is asking for slightly higher pay than Boeing 737 pilots at other airlines, arguing that Southwest uses its planes — and pilots — longer on average per day.

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Southwest pilots ready to follow

A major stumbling block at Southwest is over pilot planning. The union wants Southwest to pay pilots a premium to fly short-staffed flights instead of staffing those flights with reserve or holdover pilots.

The Southwest pilots union has already tried and failed once this year to get permission to strike. The trade union asked federal officials in June to release the group from mediation, but mediators refused. Another negotiating session is scheduled for the last week of November, but none after that.

“No one here wants to strike,” said Tom Nekouei, the union’s second vice president, “but either we need a deal by the 30th or we have to go this way.”

Aviation unions benefit from leverage to get big wage increases because a boom in travel lifts airline revenues. Texas-based American earned $1.3 billion in the second quarter alone, helped by strong ticket sales, record revenue and a drop in the price of jet fuel.

Dallas-based Southwest issued a statement saying negotiations were continuing and it will work for a contract “that rewards our pilots and positions them competitively in the industry.”

Leaders of both the American flight attendants and Southwest pilots say they are encouraged by progress made by other unions this year.

The United Auto Workers won rich new contracts after a six-week strike, and screen and TV writers and actors won better compensation for streaming content and other concessions after strikes paralyzed Hollywood for months. The Teamsters won hefty pay raises for more than 300,000 United Parcel Service workers by threatening to strike. Union organizing is on the rise.

On Thursday, several dozen American Airlines flight attendants lined a thoroughfare outside the company’s headquarters in Texas, some holding signs reading “Ready to Strike.” Drivers in everything from sedans to gravel trucks hooted in support.

“This gives me hope,” said Harris, the union official, “but also seeing what’s happening out there in the labor market around the world gives us all hope.”

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