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Southwest Flight Attendants Win 33% Raises – More Is Needed!

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There are a quarter of a million active-duty flight attendants in America. Together they handle 5% of US GDP – of every $20 exchanged in all commerce, a flight attendant handled $1 of it. Airlines, like Wall Street banks, are so powerful that politicians on both sides of the aisle consider them “too big to fail.” Airlines receive billions in bailouts when they’re in crisis, their CEOs make tens of millions every year, and they’re making record profits, helped by price gouging passengers and exploiting airline workers.

Airline workers are fighting back, and winning major victories. On April 24th, the Transit Workers Union (TWU) announced that 81% of Southwest flight attendants voted “yes” on the new contract with an overall turnout of 93%. The deal will make the top-tier of Southwest flight attendants the highest paid in the industry, and includes 33% raises over the duration of the four year contract. This comes on the heels of union pilots at Delta, American, and United who took strike votes last year, and all won contracts that include roughly 40% raises over the next four years. 

Will There Be A Strike At American Airlines?

What happens at Southwest will define negotiations at American Airlines, the largest US-based airline employing 27,000 flight attendants who are organized in the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA). Their strike vote last year was unprecedented. Over 99% voted to strike out of 97% turnout of members, but politicians have refused to “release” them from federal mediation. Airline workers fall under the Railway Labor Act, an anti-worker law that prevents some vital industries from striking without permission from the government.

While flight attendants are correctly demanding more than what is included in the Southwest offer, many individual flight attendants think if American Airlines offers the same deal as Southwest, it could cut across the mood to strike. American Airlines executives seem to think the same thing, and have already scheduled extra bargaining sessions in May. While the Southwest deal is historic, it is not enough to reverse decades of defeats and retreats for airline workers, as airline CEOs make record salaries and airlines themselves make record profits.

What Impact Can Sara Nelson Have At United Airlines?

Tens of thousands of flight attendants at United Airlines are also entering federal mediation at the moment, and they are carefully watching the outcome of Southwest and American. They are organized under the Association of Flight Attendants – CWA, which is led by Sara Nelson. For years, Sara Nelson has stood out in sharp contrast to most union leaders. She embraces the term “strike” (even “general strike”), is unapologetic about fighting for women’s and trans rights as part of the labor movement, and has sharply criticized Democratic Party politicians, though she has not called for unions and workers to build their own, independent party. 

Unfortunately, the AFA has held off on conducting a strike vote at United. The logic is that a strike vote now would undermine the union’s efforts to bargain in “good faith” at federally-mandated mediation sessions. However, no one believes the airline CEOs are acting in “good faith”, and a strike vote is likely necessary to win an offer similar to the deal won by Southwest flight attendants. 

What’s At Stake In Flight Attendant Contracts

These struggles are decisive for the efforts to unionize 50,000 Delta workers, the most profitable airline in the country. Three unions are coordinating efforts. The Teamsters are organizing the aircraft mechanics. The International Association of Machinists (IAM) are organizing baggage handlers, and the AFA-CWA are organizing the flight attendants. Delta pilots, like every other major carrier, are already union. Union organizers, a mix of new and veteran workers, have the daunting task of debunking all the company propaganda while working short-staffed under difficult conditions. These workers point out that the best way to avoid retaliation is to ramp up the organizing and visible support for the union, like wearing pro-union buttons on their uniforms during flights. They are encouraging passengers to help as well.

To avoid unionization, Delta offers concessions. Immediately after the Southwest deal, the company announced 5% raises, and in recent years started offering “boarding pay”, which even union airlines do not offer. While there is undoubtedly a wide range of opinions among Delta flight attendants, pro-union workers think that the new Southwest pay scale would not be enough to convince anti-union workers at Delta to sign a union card. Many of them do think that, instead, if flight attendants got the same offer the pilots did – 40% raises over four years – they could unionize Delta much faster. Decisive victories are the best way to rebuild the labor movement: autoworkers organized with the United Auto Workers (UAW) just won a huge victory organizing Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tennessee, following a successful strike that won a good contract.

Rather than a race to settle the contracts, the victory at Southwest should embolden the 50,000 flight attendants at American Airlines and United Airlines to continue with strike preparations to win a contract that reverses decades of retreats. A small computer glitch stranded tens of thousands of Southwest passengers last year, highlighting how effective even a short strike could be. The last airline strike was Spirit pilots in 2016, and they won everything they were demanding after just a couple days of strike action. 

This is not to say a strike would be easy. Airlines are vicious, exploitative, union busting giants, and they donate equally huge sums to Republicans and Democrats to make sure the laws benefit them. As railroad workers learned, the Democratic Party, even its left wing around Bernie Sanders and The Squad, are prepared to strike break if Biden’s reputation and the economy are on the line, as they did with the rail strike last year.

Airline workers can conduct solidarity strikes, a unique perk of the brutally anti-worker Railway Labor Act, but politicians in both parties will do everything in their power to prevent that from happening. Despite pro-union words during elections, this will put both parties firmly on the side of the bosses. This is why airline workers should link up with other unions and the wider working class to build an independent, working class party that fights for the interests of the working class as a whole, and could cut across the divisive “culture wars” the two corporate parties rely on to win elections. A real workers’ party would also talk about taking the airlines out of the hands of greedy CEOs, and putting civilian aviation under the democratic control of airline workers and aircraft engineers. If you take out the overhead of greedy CEOs and investors, travel would be cheaper, more efficient, and safer.

The labor movement needs to go all out to support airline workers’ organizing. These unions must coordinate to win contracts that can turbocharge the Delta organizing effort of 50,000 workers, more than half of whom are in the south. Unionizing all flight attendants under strong contracts would build up even more momentum to organize the unorganized. Along with the breakneck pace of autoworkers in the UAW and efforts to unionize Amazon, including at the KCVG air hub in Northern Kentucky, it could make 2024 a turning point for rebuilding the labor movement.


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