What Would It Take for Pilots, Flight Attendants To Strike Under Federal Law?

June 14, 2024
Airlines don’t have the same labor rules as most other private companies.

As contract negotiations progress across Dallas-Fort Worth’s two major carriers, American Airlines and Southwest Airlines, unions have teased strike authorization votes and strike center authorizations in an effort to get a deal.

But airlines don’t have the same labor rules as most other private companies.

It all starts with the Railway Labor Act, a law enacted in 1926, and later expanded to include airlines in 1936. It is administered by the National Mediation Board, and used generally to avoid any interruption of interstate commerce by bargaining unions and their companies.

What would it take for an airline worker union to go on strike under the Railway Labor Act?

Quite a few steps would need to happen. The law makes it very hard for a union to go on strike, but not impossible.

The Railway Labor Act has a few moving parts. It imposes an “affirmative duty” on the parties to exert every effort to make and maintain agreements regarding rates of pay, rules and working conditions. When contracts become amendable at airlines, there’s a legal obligation to begin negotiations.

For a while, these direct negotiations can go on without a mediator, and sometimes even make a deal without federal help. But, that’s not always the case.

Sometimes, a mediator can be brought in to try to secure a deal. While in mediation, if both sides are truly at a standstill, a mediator can approach the National Mediation Board and declare both sides at an impasse.

“The National Mediation Board can only act upon matters specifically assigned to it within the scope of the Railway Labor Act,” said Ernest Fleischer, spokesperson with the National Mediation Board. “Under the RLA, the role of the NMB in airline labor contract negotiations is to mediate between the carrier and union if requested to do so by the parties. Once the services of the NMB are invoked, the parties must stay in NMB-led mediation until a settlement is reached or the agency determines that the parties are at an impasse.”

The National Mediation Board controls the duration of the mediation process, which is designed to be ‘almost interminable’ to move the parties to compromise and settlement without strikes or other economic disruption, Fleischer said. If the board determines there is no way to get a deal, the case will either go to binding arbitration, a Presidential Emergency Board or “self-help.”

Self-help means the two parties will figure things out on their own, either through a new deal, a strike, a lockout or some other action.

If an impasse is declared, there’s a 30-day cooling-off period for parties to reach an agreement one last time. By the end of 30 days, without an agreement, airline unions would be authorized to strike and companies could lock out employees.

Of course, unions also have protocols for how to enact a strike, including holding strike authorization votes and establishing strike centers.

In 2010, Spirit Airlines pilots went on strike after disputes over pay, which resulted in canceling thousands of flights. The carrier later reached an agreement that put the airline back on track.

At American, pilots are currently renegotiating their contract following a United Airlines pilot deal with higher pay rates. This month, flight attendants at American will vote for a strike authorization from July 28 to Aug. 29. The vote is the first step in a long process to put pressure on management for a contract.

Meanwhile, Southwest pilots are still without a contract. Last month, the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, representing Southwest’s 9,000-plus pilots, asked federal labor regulators to be released from mediation with the carrier amid a three-year contract battle, moving one step closer to a strike.

For flight attendants at Southwest, the executive board of the flight attendant union voted down a tentative contract in June, bringing negotiations back to the drawing board. According to Southwest, the National Mediation Board has requested that both parties not meet without the assigned mediators. The next available dates are in January 2024.

Even at this stage, it could be weeks, months or even years before any union airline employees are allowed to walk off the job.

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