Sanders Leads Senate Dems in Call for US Board to Allow Airline Workers Strike

By: Jessica Corbett; Common Dreams

“Airline carriers do not feel pressured to reach agreements quickly, likely because the flight attendants’ ability to strike has rarely been allowed to be exercised,” senators wrote to the National Mediation Board.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders on Wednesday led 31 Senate Democrats in a letter calling on the agency that facilitates labor and management relations within the country’s railroad and airline industries to allow flight attendants to strike if necessary.

Sanders (I-Vt.), who chairs the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, and his colleagues—including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.)—wrote to the three-member National Mediation Board (NMB), established by 1934 amendments to the Railway Labor Act of 1926.

“Unlike workers covered by the National Labor Relations Act, workers covered by the Railway Labor Act do not possess the right to strike or engage in any other form of ‘self-help’ without a formal vote by the board,” notes the letter. “We are concerned about the increasing number of contract negotiations before the NMB that are being unnecessarily drawn out at the expense of workers.”

“We understand that there are ongoing negotiations that have dragged on for as long as five years and we have heard from workers who are rightfully frustrated that they are being subjected to unfair delays in bargaining,” the letter explains. “In particular, over 100,000 flight attendants have recently been or currently are stuck in contract negotiations with many working under contracts that expired several years ago.”

Noting flight attendant rallies at airports earlier this year, the letter states that “these workers were on the frontlines of the Covid-19 pandemic and were instrumental in saving the airline industry from collapse, but now, in some cases, find themselves working for pre-pandemic wage levels. They deserve better.”

The senators suggested that “airline carriers do not feel pressured to reach agreements quickly, likely because the flight attendants’ ability to strike has rarely been allowed to be exercised,” with the NMB only allowing two strikes since 2006, “compared to dozens of instances in the 1980s and 1990s.”

“Therefore, we join with our 178 colleagues in the House to urge the board to use all of the tools at your disposal, including releasing parties from mediation as necessary, to resolve these long-pending contract negotiations,” they wrote, referencing a May letter led by Rep. Melanie Stansbury (D-N.M.).

Union leaders in the industry have praised both the House and Senate efforts. Thanking Sanders for spearheading the latest letter, Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents nearly 55,000 workers at 20 airlines, said Wednesday that “when negotiations drag on for three to more than five years it’s clearly time to call the question.”

“Airline executives have believed they have a free pass to delay conclusion of negotiations, while richly rewarding themselves. No more!” she declared. “Flight attendants and other aviation workers are ready to back up demands for long overdue record contracts. The strike is not the goal, but it is the means in these situations to get real on getting a deal.”

Julie Hedrick, national president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFP), which represents 28,000 American Airlines workers, stressed that “contract negotiations must have reasonable deadlines in order for both parties to be motivated to reach an agreement.”

“APFA thanks Sen. Bernie Sanders for leading this letter to the National Mediation Board that says exactly that,” she added, also thanking the signatories for supporting workers’ fight for better wages and working conditions. “It’s been five years since APFA members worked under an updated contract and our members are not able to wait any longer.”

The Senate letter comes on the eve of workers around the world “kicking off this red hot Solidarity Summer with a Worldwide Flight Attendant Day of Action to demand our contracts.”

“No matter what uniform we wear, we’ve earned the long-term security, benefits, flexibility, dignity, and respect that comes with a strong contract,” say organizers, who have planned dozens of pickets. “It’s time for airline management to pay up and get this done.”