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PHL-based flight attendants authorize a strike at a regional carrier for American Airlines

All flight attendants who cast ballots agreed to authorize a strike over pay demands, their union said. Piedmont Airlines said it's "dedicated to getting a competitive contract negotiated."

Union members from the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA Local 61 and supporters picketed outside of Terminal F at Philadelphia International Airport in Philadelphia, Pa. on October 21, 2021.
Union members from the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA Local 61 and supporters picketed outside of Terminal F at Philadelphia International Airport in Philadelphia, Pa. on October 21, 2021.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Flight attendants based out of Philadelphia and Charlotte, N.C., for an American Airlines regional carrier voted to authorize a strike, as contract negotiations that started before the pandemic have failed to produce an agreement on pay raises, their union said Thursday.

About 360 flight attendants work for Piedmont Airlines, an American Airlines subsidiary that operates as American Eagle. Strike ballots that went out in late September were tallied Thursday, and everyone who voted — 75.4% of workers — agreed to authorize a strike, according to the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA.

The result of the vote doesn’t mean that a strike is imminent. The union and the airline will be back at the bargaining table next month, and federal regulations require additional steps before permitting an airline employee work stoppage. But at a time when worker discontent is on the rise nationwide, across a wide swath of industries, the threat of a strike adds another element of pressure to contract talks.

“Piedmont Flight Attendants are speaking with one voice to demand management get serious about resolving our contract,” Keturah Johnson, AFA’s Local 61 president, said in a statement. “Flight attendants kept Piedmont flying through the pandemic. How does management thank us? By offering a ‘deal’ that would mean cuts to our take-home pay.”

The company’s offer of “minimal pay raises” would be wiped out by higher health insurance costs for the employees, and negotiations are stalled, the union said.

Piedmont Airlines said it’s “dedicated to getting a competitive contract negotiated for our more than 350 Piedmont Flight Attendants,” according to a statement issued Thursday. “We are in agreement our team members deserve the best contract and we are committed to delivering that to them. We look forward to getting back to negotiations in November.”

American Airlines, the dominant air carrier at Philadelphia International Airport, did not comment separately.

Johnson announced the vote results during a picket at PHL, where Piedmont flight attendants were joined by flight attendants from American, Spirit, and Mesa airlines, along with members of other labor groups. “We will go back to the negotiating table next month with this in our pocket,” Johnson said in an interview.

By law, airline employees can’t go on strike immediately. They would need a release to do so from the National Mediation Board, a federal agency that referees labor disputes for airlines and railroad companies. If the board agrees to a release, the company and the union would enter a 30-day cooling-off period before a strike could happen.

But the vote results carry weight — and come during so-called Striketober, as workers across the U.S. are on strike at mines, hospitals, and such brand-name companies as John Deere and Kellogg, including the cereal maker’s plant in Lancaster.

“It demonstrates power and solidarity of the membership,” said Arthur Wheaton, a faculty member at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

By authorizing a strike, workers give a show of confidence in union leadership during bargaining, “that we’re not happy with the current contract, and we’re willing to give the union the power to go out on strike,” Wheaton said.

New Piedmont flight attendants earn about $16,500 in base pay, at a roughly $19 hourly rate for 72 guaranteed hours of flight time a month. A fifth-year flight attendant makes about $24,300 in base pay, on an hourly wage of $28.11. Other factors, such as flying more trips, can boost pay.

“We are already paid less than our counterparts at other regional carriers, and far less than mainline flight attendants doing the same work at the American Airlines Group,” Johnson said.

Along with higher wages, the union has been pushing for benefits such as commuter rooms, so flight attendants can stay close to the airport the night before an early trip.

Pandemic work conditions are one of the factors driving strikes across industries, Wheaton said. Flight attendants have dealt with safety and security concerns of enforcing mask rules for passengers who don’t want to wear them, he noted.

“Strikes are hitting a lot of folks, and the pandemic is part of the reason, and a stronger labor market for workers is another part of the reason,” Wheaton said.

AFA also called attention Thursday to staffing shortages at major airlines that have caused operational problems as airlines continue to ramp up service from pandemic lulls.

“We’ve seen in the last few months how delicate the aviation system is, and how much it depends on every worker,” AFA International President Sara Nelson said. “The flight attendants at Piedmont are sending a message to management and to our entire industry.”