American Airlines Give Your Flight Attendants a Livable Wage Challenge

American Airlines flight attendants haven't seen a wage increase since their union's contract expired in 2019. Now, a strike might be on the horizon.

American Airlines Give Your Flight Attendants a Livable Wage Challenge

Over the weekend, a disgruntled, anonymous passenger on an American Airlines flight shared their experience on View From The Wing, an online forum and blog for frequent business travel. The user, who was seated in first class, had overheard a flight attendant “proudly declaring” to her colleague that she refused to complete pre-takeoff service for first-class passengers “because of the contract.”

“If I declared my unwillingness to do my job in front of customers, I’d certainly get fired,” the user wrote in the forum. But what many American Airlines flyers probably don’t know, however, is that their flight attendants’ compensation is calculated solely on flight time, meaning any duty performed pre and post-flight isn’t reflected in their paychecks. Theirs is an unfair contract; rife with truly galling labor practices. And it might just see American Airlines flight attendants striking in a way that would impact more than just the passengers who can afford first class.

It’s been five years since the airline’s flight attendants received a collective raise, and it appears collective action for a livable wage is imminent. Their last union contract expired in 2019 and negotiations for a new one have repeatedly stalled. The situation, as many outlets continue to report, is dire. According to an employment letter that began circulating on Reddit in early May, the starting salary is just $27,315 per year before taxes. To be clear, that would take a single-parent household of more than one child in a state like Texas (where the company is headquartered) beneath the poverty line. And in multiple states, it would also qualify single-person households for benefits like food stamps. To be even clearer: The airline could give its flight attendants a raise at any time since the contract expired. It just hasn’t.

“We have flight attendants who are sleeping in their cars,” Paul Hartshorn, the communications director for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (the union representing the flight attendants) told CNN in May.

I know what you’re thinking: What’s stopping these people from walking off the job? (Besides, you know, requiring what little salary they do have to live, of course.) In short: Because travel is a daily necessity for countless Americans, there’s a special set of labor laws governing airway and railway transportation unions, so that employees aren’t empowered to strike at will. First, they must negotiate with a government mediator. If those talks aren’t successful, that mediator can declare a stalemate, at which point the Biden administration could either force a deal during a mandated thirty-day cooling-off period or decline to do so. If it’s the latter, a strike can go forward. Despite the lengthy course of negotiations, the union has yet to secure a stalemate declaration, and it’s still seeking a 33% wage increase for employees. Last week, the union told Quartz: “While we are limited in the details of what we can discuss, we will be providing more information on the status of bargaining and the next steps to reach an agreement.”

To echo Sarah Nelson, President of the Association of Flight Attendants, in this Jacobin op-ed from February, airline execs are lucky to benefit from the labor of flight attendants—as are passengers. In fact, if the pandemic proved anything, it’s that these employees are essential workers. The decision shouldn’t be difficult: Give them the opportunity to strike, or give them a livable wage.

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