The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Flight Attendant Negotiations
A message from AFA Director of Collective Bargaining Joe Burns
(Compiled from the 2nd virtual roadshow transcript and lightly edited.)
Hi everybody. I’m Joe Burns, director of Collective Bargaining at AFA. I’ve been at AFA for 20 years. I’ve been doing bargaining (on) most contracts in the industry (that) I have worked on in one capacity or another. For the last five years I’ve been director of bargaining overseeing our bargaining at various carriers.
I just want to give you a little background on bargaining in the industry over the last couple years and how this contract extension fits into that. If you rewind the clock about a year to a little over a year and a half what you find is that we were in a very sort of offensive mode of bargaining where we had Flight Attendant work groups demanding increases in pay and improvements. We had a big battle going on at Hawaiian Airlines that (Aviation Economist) Dan (Akins) and myself and (AFA Senior Staff Negotiator) Paula (Mastrangelo) work closely with the Flight Attendants there where we took a strike vote we were doing picketing and very much seeking improvements.
Overall, the American Flight Attendants were back at the bargaining table after their joint contract that had been put together in 2015. At end of 2014 the United Flight Attendants had an early opener (and) you all here at Alaska had an early opener coming up and Spirit had an early opener coming up. So overall we had a lot of bargaining going on.
We were really sort of pressing the issue to get improvements then the coronavirus hit, and you know by the by the time we were getting into February and march of last year the bargaining climate shifted dramatically. Through some very hard bargaining we were able to get our deal done at Hawaiian right before they shut down the state, but it was really a photo finish. The horizon Flight Attendants were able to get a deal but that was done before the crisis really hit although they voted on it during that period.
But other than that, groups that did not have locked in agreements found that their bargaining stalled out rather dramatically. The American Flight Attendants were in Section 6 bargaining. They haven’t bargained for a year. I’m working with that work group, and I think our analysis there has been that it has not been a good time to be in bargaining. We were concerned about (American management) coming in and demanding concessions and trying to take away work roles. When the company is losing millions of dollars of cash each day, it would be hard to win any types of improvements. So that bargaining got put on hold.
Beyond that I think a lot of the work that the unions and the companies have been doing for the last year have been focused on doing side letters dealing with furloughs and so forth, and there hasn’t really been the attention that would have been given to negotiations. So, in general what we’ve seen throughout the industry’s work groups … who are in bargaining are pausing their negotiations, so that would be the American Flight Attendants. At Southwest I think there was an attempt to keep the bargaining going, but pretty soon management started demanding concessions, so those negotiations have slowed down.
In work groups that had bargaining coming up, pretty much across the board the Flight Attendants have opted to delay the early openers in their negotiations. Your group already did that once. The Flight Attendants at Spirit Airlines delayed their early opener. The Flight Attendants at United did not exercise their early opener. All of these groups based (their decisions) on an analysis that this is not the time that you want to be in bargaining. You want to be generally bargaining during an upswing. I think you know six months ago before we got the payroll support programs passed, the real concern is that management would use these negotiations as a way–because we had open contracts–of trying to force through concessions, frankly.
So anyway, that that was the overall framework. I think Dan can talk more to the economics of it, but we’re predicting that the bargaining climate is going to continue to be difficult for the next several years. We’re hopefully starting to see an uptick, and we’ll get through the worst of the pandemic crisis, but when the company spends down a lot of their cash reserves (and/or) when they borrow money, then it creates a bargaining climate where they’re pinching pennies for the next number of years, and we’re going to have to fight to get whatever we can get frankly. So, for these negotiations in particular I think what sort of made sense is at some point it was in our interest to be pushing back negotiations for the reasons that I’ve stated.
But then at a certain point I think the discussion of your MEC leadership was if it’s in our interest to delay negotiations, (so) why don’t we see if we can get some immediate increases for Flight Attendants to do what’s in our interests anyway, which is to delay the negotiations. So, I think that’s really where the thought process is in terms of getting a one and a half percent increase and then going back to the table in another year. I think that’s probably more in line with where the negotiations are going to be throughout the industry, which is as I’ve indicated, having somewhat of a pause (or) a regrouping and then be(ing) able to go back to the table and push offensive demands.