American Airlines' flight attendants are contemplating the highly unusual tactic of calling a brief strike of pre-announced duration over the holidays in an attempt to sting the profitable carrier while minimizing the risk of any of the workers losing their jobs.
The Assn. of Professional Flight Attendants, the union representing American's attendants, has begun a strike authorization vote, with results scheduled to be announced on Dec. 21.
"We expect to have a positive vote and positive strike action," said Pat Gibbs, president of the attendant's union. Gibbs said a strike, if approved, would last one to three days. "It's not an economic strike," Gibbs said. "It's to show solidarity and unity of purpose" to protest American's refusal to negotiate a contract satisfactory to the attendants.
The flight attendants have been working under new conditions imposed by American seven months ago after months of bargaining failed to produce a contract.
Gibbs said that while a brief strike could hurt the company at a time of peak business, it would not "affect the total economic picture of American." Gibbs said key factors in the union leadership's plan to announce the dates and duration of a strike would be an attempt to minimize inconvenience to the public and to decrease the possibility that members would lose their jobs.
Her opponents in the union, however, and company officials said that if there is a walkout, strikers will lose their jobs.
Al Becker, an American spokesman, said in an interview that the company had a contingency plan and intends to operate at full capacity in the event of a strike. He said the company plans to "permanently replace" any attendant who strikes.
Becker would not divulge any details of company plans, but Gibbs said the company currently is training about 600 potential strikebreakers in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. She asserted that there is no way American can have enough replacements ready if a strike occurs later this month. About 4,000 of the company's 12,000 attendants work on any given day, she said.
According to Federal Aviation Administration rules, attendants at American have to have at least 19 days of training before they can work.
Though it is not uncommon for public employees, such as teachers and policemen, to stage one-day walkouts, it would be rare for a private-sector union to say how long a strike would last, said Charles Craypo, a labor relations expert at the University of Notre Dame. He said the attendants' plan is a sign of how unions are changing their tactics, and a reflection of union leaders' fear that their members could lose their jobs during a protracted battle such as the 1986 Trans World Airlines strike, when 4,000 attendants lost their jobs.
Sandra Muehlig, chairwoman of the union's Washington council, said she opposes a strike because she fears that American attendants could suffer the same fate as the TWA attendants. She predicted that the union members would vote down a strike.
The current debate over a strike is the latest chapter in a long dispute between the union and the company and a series of faction fights within the union. The attendants and American have been divided on a host of issues for more than a year.
American was the first carrier to get its workers to agree to a two-tier pay scale in 1983, a practice that has become widespread in the industry. The attendants came into negotiations last year with the goal of securing immediate pay parity for workers hired after December, 1983, who are paid substantially less (current average is $13,000) than those hired earlier (current average is $27,000), even though they do the same job. "The new people are grossly underpaid," Gibbs said in a telephone interview. She said some work full-time and are able to collect food stamps.
The company balked at the immediate parity demand, saying it needs to retain differential pay scales to remain competitive. Gibbs scoffed at this statement, noting that American was the most profitable airline in the country last year and had increased revenues this year, even though profits are down somewhat because of major expenditures for expanding its facilities in Nashville, Tenn., Raleigh, N.C., and San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Last April, after months of negotiations, mediation and a federally mandated 30-day cooling-off period, the company imposed new working conditions and granted some wage increases. Under the company's terms, it would take 15 years for workers hired after 1983 to reach the pay levels of those hired previously.
American said that junior flight attendants would get increases of up to 37.2% over three years; flight attendants hired before 1983 with less than 12 years experience would get increases totaling 11.7%, and attendants with 12 or more years with the company would get lump-sum payments totaling $1,800, but no increase in base pay.
Gibbs maintained that the increases were illusory because the new work rules give American the right to use fewer attendants on flights, provide shorter rest periods between flights and reduce minimum-pay guarantees in some situations.
Since the new conditions were implemented, additional bargaining sessions have been held, but there has been little progress toward an agreement.
The union has also been attempting to pressure the company in other ways, including a "corporate campaign" aimed at severing ties between American and two of its major financiers, Equitable Life Assurance Society of New York and Republic Bank of Dallas. Thus far, knowledgeable observers say, the corporate campaign has had no significant impact on American's finances or its position at the bargaining table.
In March, the company fired 17 flight attendants who were distributing leaflets critical of American at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, American's principal hub, but they eventually were reinstated.
Change of Position
Until late last month, Gibbs had taken the position that the union would not strike. Then around Thanksgiving, talk of the brief "solidarity" strike began to surface. Gibbs said it was a technique used successfully by unions in several European companies.
American's position is that any strike would be illegal. "Under the Railway Labor Act, according to our lawyers, when the cooling-off period expired (in April), the union had a window of opportunity to seek economic self-help--in other words, to engage in a strike," said American spokesman Becker. "That window existed only for a reasonable amount of time. . . . Because the union did not avail itself of the strike within that window, that opportunity ceased to exist for the union."
Gibbs said that the union's lawyers assured her that a strike would be perfectly legal. She said the company's statements are "completely without foundation, a cynical, self-serving scare tactic." The union filed a suit in Fort Worth federal court this week seeking to bar the company from continuing to say a strike would be illegal.
Gibbs acknowledged in an interview that she did not expect either American's pilots or its ground crews to support a strike. Several knowledgeable sources said they thought that given the circumstances--the company's strong economic position, divisions within the union and lack of support from other unions--that any strike would be highly risky at this point. One source who is sympathetic to the attendants said he feared "these people could walk into a blood bath."