Flight attendants forced into one-day nationwide strike
Flight attendants and a pilot protest at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024. | Nam Y. Huh/AP

WASHINGTON—Going five years without a raise, because your boss won’t bargain a new union contract, has its costs.

For flight attendants at Southwest Airlines, represented by the independent Association of Professional Flight Attendants, it means—if you’re a first- or second-year attendant–sleeping in your car and using food stamps to buy enough to eat.

Or if you’re Cindy Sjoquist, a former flight attendant at Wisconsin Airlines, a regional air carrier whose workers are represented by the Association of Flight Attendants/CWA, it means “you’re chronically underpaid,” she said in a break from picketing at Washington, D.C.’s National Airport.

“Our starting wage was $20 an hour, and that’s only for the time we spent in the air,” Sjoquist says. Working for a regional carrier which mostly runs short-haul feeder flights to larger carriers at larger airports, Air Wisconsin attendants often change flights “six to eight times a day.” And they don’t get paid for the time in between.

“We’re spending more time on the ground boarding passengers,” for which their pay is zero, “than we do in the air.”

“For the first two years, I lived with my parents and had a ‘crash pad’ at my (home) base which I shared with 10 others,” Sjoquist elaborated. “I survived on crew meals and donations from the pilots.”

It’s low pay like that, and up to five years—to be precise, 1931 days–at one big carrier, without a new contract that drove tens of thousands of unionized flight attendants to picket lines on February 13 at more than 30 airports from Anchorage to Chicago to Guam and from Fort Lauderdale to Honolulu.

Those airports and more were on the picketing list just for one airline the AFA called out, American. Picket lines of its attendants ran from 11 am local time to noon, except at London’s Heathrow Airport. Picketing there started at 5 pm—the same minute as 11 am in New York.

A world-wide day of action

The picketing highlighted what AFA labeled “A worldwide day of action” against American, Southwest, Air Wisconsin, Air Alaska and 20 other carriers. Their top demand is “fair contracts with significant pay increases.” Some 100,000 flight attendants are in stalled negotiations for those pacts, AFA says.

“We’re working harder than ever with long days, short nights, more time away from family, and in some of the most difficult working conditions of our history. Some Flight Attendants haven’t had a raise in five years,” AFA said in announcing picketing plans.

“Working conditions and pay have been eroded by consistent operational issues and cost of living significantly higher following the pandemic. We do life-saving work every day—from responding to medical emergencies, to de-escalating conflict, or fighting fires. The flying public is behind our contract demands for fair pay for good reason.”

One other good reason is the high pay and bonuses the airline honchos award themselves. By contrast, Melissa Rube of Transport Workers Local 556, which represents Southwest Airlines attendants at Baltimore-Washington-area airports, told of the attendants who need food stamps or “who live in their cars.”

Conditions and pay contrasts drew support from other unions and lawmakers, too.

Tony Totty, president of Auto Workers Local 14 at the Chrysler/Jeep plant in Toledo, Ohio, came to D.C. in solidarity with the AFA. AFA-CWA President Sara Nelson had walked the picket line with his members during the recent and successful UAW Stand Up! rolling strike against Detroit’s Big 3, Ford, GM and Stellantis, formerly FiatChrysler.

“We have to let people know about corporate greed,” Totty explained. “We see CEO compensation and it’s far beyond that of our members,” just like at the airlines. “All these AFA members deserve their fair share.”

Congressional support came from Labor Caucus co-chair Donald Norcoss, D-N.J., an Electrical Worker from Camden, who spoke to the picketers. He also led 145 lawmakers to sign a letter to Delta urging company neutrality in the joint AFA-Teamsters-Machinists organizing drive at that carrier. Only Delta’s pilots are unionized. Its top management has an industry-wide reputation for aggressive union-busting.

“Our constituents informed us about Delta’s history of deploying unionbusting tactics, including threatening employees with termination of their benefits, distributing anti-union literature, and hosting an anti-union website,” the letter to CEO Ed Bastian says. “These retaliatory actions are hostile to workers’ rights, and we urge you to commit to implementing a neutrality agreement with regard to these union organizing efforts.

“A neutrality agreement simply consists of an employer agreeing not to engage in pre-election activities that influence workers’ freedom to form a union. Your commitment to neutrality would ensure management does not pressure workers into voting against unionization” or to delaying the recognition election. “A neutrality agreement is the bare minimum standard Delta should meet in respecting workers’ rights and to comply with the Railway Labor Act’s directive to not ‘interfere influence or coerce’” workers in unionizing or not. The railroad labor law covers rail and airline workers.

“All workers should have the free and fair choice to join a union, as is required by law.”

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.