Imagine your union president resigned—and three months later, became a high-paid consultant for your employer. Reformers in the Association of Professional Flight Attendants used this unfortunate situation to spur their campaign to reclaim the union.
President Laura Glading stepped down in October—under pressure from angry members, who were pushing for a special recall election. American then later announced that it had hired her as a consultant. “Laura Glading pretty much had management’s philosophy. It got to the point where the lines between the company and the union were blurred so that they were almost unrecognizable.” explained Bob Ross, who won 71 percent of the 11,533 votes cast, and will be the new president.
Ross points to the five-year contract negotiated in 2014, which was voted down 8,196 to 8,181—and then implemented anyway, after just one day of binding arbitration. The contract also introduced a “hard 40”—a requirement to fly a minimum of 40 flight-hours every month, “which is hard for a lot of people who have obligations and emergencies,” said L.A.-based flight attendant Tyler Bonilla. Previously the requirement had been more flexible: a 40-hour monthly average over the year. “The flexibility of this job is a reason why people become a flight attendant,” said Bonilla, who started in 2013. It allows them to care for sick family members and take advantage of their travel benefits. Flight attendants also lost the right to light duty—“which is huge for pregnant women,” Bonilla said. And new hires went backwards. They now work their first year entirely on reserve (i.e., on call), rather than alternating every other month between reserve and a set schedule. Getting this contract through was key to the merger. Flight attendants were furious when they learned that Glading’s cousin, Tom Weir, had been a top US Airways executive during the merger negotiations. He too now works at American. Other union flight attendants have been lobbying for a 10-hour minimum rest requirement. A bill pushed by the Communications Workers-affiliated Association of Flight Attendants, which represents 60,000 crew members at 19 airlines, passed the House in February. While APFA rank and filers also lobbied for the bill, they’re furious that former President Glading is lobbying for the company’s interests. “The union leadership has forgotten who they’re supposed to be protecting,” said Ross. “We can’t be the ones who protect the company’s bottom line. The company has to do that itself.”
APFA members had voted down another concessionary contract in 2003. That one too was implemented anyway, after the company and union agreed to extend voting for a day. “Within five minutes, there were these pink pieces of paper, letting us change our votes,” said Miami-based flight attendant Kiri Wirth. “We got on our aircraft, we got another pink slip of paper. There was another one slid under our hotel room door. And another one at the gate.” That contract included a 34 percent overall pay cut, which the union and management argued was necessary to save American from the bankruptcy wave that was then sweeping the industry.
Senior flight attendants at American can make up to $56.69 per flight-hour in base wages. But that only counts flying time. “If a flight’s canceled, we lose money,” said Ross. “We’re not paid during the boarding process. … When you land and you change aircraft and you’re walking through the terminal, you’re not paid for that.” Nationally, flight attendants' wages have stagnated for decades. “We’re making the wages of around 1998,” said Ross. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a median wage of $42,710 that year—and $42,290 in 2014. Accounting for inflation, that means wages have fallen dramatically. At American, new flight attendants start at $24.67 per flight-hour—in the low $20,000s annually. Barbara Thrower, who has worked as a flight attendant since 1973, estimates her salary has been cut by nearly one-fourth since 2003. In the same period, she said, “we’ve lost work rules that you can’t put a price on.