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Ongoing Aviation Labor Disputes Could Put White House in a Bind

Intensifying labor disputes in the airline industry could become a quandary for the White House as an election year approaches.

U.s.,President,Joseph,Biden,Speaks,As,He,Kicks,Off,The

U.S. President Joseph Biden speaks as he kicks off the AFL-CIO’s annual Tri-State Labor Day Parade in Philadelphia, Penn. (Photo: Shutterstock)

In September, Joe Biden made history by being the first sitting U.S. president to join a picket line of auto workers who were on strike in Michigan. “You’ve heard me say it many times. Wall Street didn’t build the country. The middle class built the country, and unions built the middle class. And that’s a fact. So, let’s keep going,” Biden said while speaking to United Auto Workers (UAW) in September.

As contract negotiations intensify at major U.S. airlines amid the looming specter of a possible strike – one that could significantly disrupt interstate commerce – the commitment of President Biden to his rallying cry of “keep going” will be put to the test, especially in an election year when every decision is magnified and its repercussions are felt far and wide.

U.S. airlines and the labor unions on their property are governed by a complex 1920s piece of legislation, called the Railway Labor Act (RLA), which–at a very high level–regulates their contract bargaining process. Unlike other industries, Section 6 of the RLA denies unions an easy path to strike.

The NMB’s Relationship

Overseeing this often lengthy process is an independent federal agency called the National Mediation Board (NMB) – a relatively small body, consisting of three appointed board members and a handful of mediators. The current NMB chair was appointed by Biden and later confirmed by the Senate in 2021.

In late November, the NMB denied the request of American’s flight attendants, who are represented by the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA), to be released from federal mediation. Had this request been approved, the union and company would have entered into a 30-day cooling-off period, after which the American flight attendants would have been allowed to strike.

An American Eagle E175 (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Peter Weiland)

Prior to a strike or lock-out action, however, the president has broad discretion to establish a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) when the labor dispute threatens “substantially to interrupt interstate commerce to a degree such as to deprive any section of the country of essential transportation service.”

The PEB has 30 days from the date of its creation to conduct hearings and investigations on the dispute at issue as well as to render a recommendation to settle the dispute. During this process, the union is prohibited from striking.

Biden’s Bind

Flight attendants at American, Alaska, Southwest, and United, among other airlines and workgroups, have made incremental progress toward new contracts but have largely taken a backseat to the high-profile pilot deals. Moving into 2024, it is becoming increasingly possible that the NMB may find itself with little option but to release a union from the mediation process if no progress is made.

Once released, the union will be free to strike as early as 30 days later. Even a short strike by tens of thousands of union members across the country could wreak havoc on the national economy. If President Biden interjects by establishing a PEB, not only will this executive action delay access to a strike, but it may also prevent one altogether if the parties agree to the PEB’s recommendation.

Still, an unfavorable interjection by Biden could cost him union support – a crucial voting bloc for Democrats – several months ahead of the presidential election. On the other hand, allowing a large union to strike exposes the economy to significant risks.

Americans are already uneasy about Biden’s performance on the economy. Only 36% of U.S. adults approve of Biden’s handling of the economy, according to a recent poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. In addition, the economy remains a top issue for voters in 2024 with 83% deeming it a ‘very important’ issue in the presidential election, according to Bloomberg.

Ultimately, the buck in these labor disputes stops with Biden. Whether it is himself or someone that he delegates, President Biden will be walking a tightrope as he attempts to balance national economic interests with union solidarity in an election year where the state of the economy will be foremost on voters’ minds.

Ryan Ewing
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  • Ryan Ewing

    Ryan founded AirlineGeeks.com back in February 2013 and has amassed considerable experience in the aviation sector. His work has been featured in several publications and news outlets, including CNN, WJLA, CNET, and Business Insider. During his time in the industry, he's worked in roles pertaining to airport/airline operations while holding a B.S. in Air Transportation Management from Arizona State University along with an MBA. Ryan has experience in several facets of the industry from behind the yoke of a Cessna 172 to interviewing airline industry executives. Ryan works for AirlineGeeks' owner FLYING Media, spearheading coverage in the commercial aviation space.

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