Airlines are covered by the Railway Labor Act. Contracts signed under that act never expire, but simply live on after their term until a new contract is approved or the union strikes. Because a strike can have far-reaching effects on commerce, the Railway Labor Act requires both sides to engage in long-term mediated talks before they reach an impasse. All three of Alaska's union groups without new contracts are in mediated talks.
If the National Mediation Board finally declares an impasse, the union is free to strike after a 30-day cooling-off period. But President Bush also may appoint an emergency board, which may impose further cool-down periods before the union gains permission to halt work.
Gaining that permission might be difficult or impossible in Alaska's case because the airline furnishes the sole major air service to a dozen isolated Alaska communities with no other easy link to the rest of the country.
The recent history of union strikes against airlines gives them scant encouragement that even if they gain permission to strike they'll be able to shut down the carrier.
Union mechanics struck last summer at Northwest Airlines, but the airline was able to keep flying by hiring nonunion workers to replace the strikers.
Alaska's flight attendants union, the Association of Flight Attendants, moved last week to brandish its sword toward the airline. The union's Master Executive Council called for members to approve a strike authorization, a necessary first step in the arduous process of going on strike.
Veda Shook, Alaska Airlines Master Executive Council president, said the union likely will take that vote after the late February mediation session.
Shook said the airline's improved profitability should allow it to treat its frontline workers more generously.
"Our CEO has publicly stated that last year's success was a result of the sacrifices made by the employees, and that we will be the ones who ultimately benefit from this," Shook said. "And yet they are still coming to us and asking for more.
"Flight attendants have already sacrificed so much for the success of this company and we deserve a fair contract. Enough is enough."
It's been more than three years since Alaska Airlines' nearly 2,900 union clerks, office workers and customer service agents have seen a cost-of-living raise.
Mechanics, flight attendants frustrated with lack of progress
During a CHAOS strike, like the one Northwest Airlines flight attendants threatened to launch last week, there's very little actual striking.
NWA told a bankruptcy court it has reached a tentative agreement with the union representing ground workers, but talks with pilot and flight attendants unions appeared to be deadlocked.