American Airlines Has One Flight Attendant Contract

In the end, there wasn’t much noise at all.  The arbitration board deciding the fate of the flight attendants sided with the airline on all 3 points, and the flight attendants all now have the same contract.

The path this has taken was a little surprising, though it likely showed us that even after the US Airways flight attendants agreed on a joint contract in 2013 after over 7 years of not being able to agree that there’s still a lot of people not on the same page.  When you fold in the existing American Airlines flight attendants to a new vote, there were enough competing interests that the contract union leaders and American Airlines agreed upon was voted down by less than 1%, a total of 16 votes.

The surprising part was that the flight attendants knew if they didn’t ratify the contract, they would lose roughly $81 million in compensation.  The agreements all parties reached in 2013 stated that if the flight attendants couldn’t agree on a contract that the matter would be settled in arbitration, but with only $112 million in additional compensation instead of $193 million.

Unsurprisingly, the arbitration voted against the union in all 3 matters they were contesting:

The board rejected the union’s request for “me-too” clauses that guaranteed that APFA members would get profit sharing and better health coverage if other unions secured those items in their own joint contracts. That was two items.

“A majority of the Panel also rejected APFA’s argument that the new wage rates of the JCBA be retroactive to December 2, 2014. It held that starting the pay increases prior to the effective date of the JCBA would result in its value exceeding the $112 million cap,” the union said.

To me, this is a good example of how unions are not always a positive influence in today’s workforce.  This outcome isn’t necessarily the fault of union leadership.  It appears that a group this large just had interests that were too diverse to achieve one set of priorities at this time.

It’s just a little painful to see, in that they could have set aside their differences and all had larger pay raises, the line item where the lost $81 million will come out of.

Predictably, the union head has already campaigned management to give flight attendants the full amount promised prior to arbitration and a small group of employees were picketing last week asking for more benefits.  The process failed them to some degree and they’re likely stuck with this outcome, which hopefully won’t poison them as employees (see United Airlines).

While I disagreed with some of Doug Parker’s language as it related to the arbitration move with the flight attendants, I’m convinced that they didn’t have much of a choice here as it relates to future negotiations.  By not enforcing the arbitration provision when the flight attendants voted down the contract as detailed, I think it shows the unions that they can continue to push without impunity for better contract terms.  Why agree to a deal you don’t like if you don’t believe management is willing to draw a line in the sand?

I still believe the relationship between management and the unions is flawed in many ways, tainted over years of distrust and arguments between the relative parties.  That doesn’t get fixed in one contract cycle.

The pilots and management are still in the middle of negotiations and both sides have shown flexibility to continue discussions there.  There’s hope for a mutual resolution and it may be easier to get consensus amongst the pilots given there are less total pilots than flight attendants.  But, given the deep-seated acrimony from the US Airways/America West days and the relatively lukewarm relationship between American Airlines and their pilots, coupled with the recent flight attendant vote in contrast to their leaders’ agreement, it seems like there’s still a few more acts to this show.


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  1. Ed, as a long-term union employee, I respectfully think you are way off here in stating that “In this case, unions are not always a positive influence in today’s workforce.” I would argue that the very fact that the company and the employees both came to the table to have this discussion in the first place is a very positive thing. In most workplaces, if you don’t like something they will show you the door. Just because a union did not deliver the highest compensation possible does not mean they were not effective. You, I or anyone but an insider to these negotiations have no idea what gains employees attained in the new contract. As a union employee, I regularly vote to trade monetary compensation for increases in benefits and security. So, let us not be so flippant about what or what did not occur here. It’s speculation.

    I’m in healthcare specifically, and I have worked in both union and non-union facilities. I can unequivocally tell you that union hospitals treat their employees better, allow them to air their concerns and grievances in a respectful way, work collaboratively with management to improve patient care, and allow employees to provide for their families.

    I would urge you to closely look at the non-union air carriers efficacy, overall management and the product they deliver to the public. With the possible exception of Southwest, non-union carriers are not even in the same ballpark. And, this is one of the many reasons I will not fly non-union carriers.

    Thanks again for an excellent blog and keep up the good work!

    1. McMunch, I appreciate your opinion here and don’t doubt that the union has helped you in your workplace. In this specific instance, I don’t think the union leadership specifically did ANYTHING wrong. It’s possible they didn’t educate the members enough on the ramifications of a “no” vote, but I don’t believe that to be the case.

      In this case, the union and management agreed on a deal, collectively bargained for 25K-ish employees. The rank and file were evenly divided. They voted it down by a very narrow measure, literally almost the definition of a 50-50 split (16 votes out of 16,000 was the difference).

      By voting no, the employees got no additional benefits or concessions. They lost $81 million.

      If a group of employees that big is capable of being evenly split on a contract leadership agreed to, I would assert that the group is not serving all of its members to the fullest. That doesn’t mean they did something wrong, it just means they couldn’t get 16,000 people to agree, a daunting task. Getting 16,000 to agree is a tough thing, especially on contentious issues.

      Seeing as how the employees made no gain whatsoever by voting down the contract (and should have reasonably believed that would happen given the tentative agreement), that means either union leadership or the diversity of the group are likely culprits. In this case, I tend to think it was the diversity of the group.

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