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How President Biden Could Prevent a Flight Attendant Strike This Summer

The White House may find itself in a bind.

Airline flight attendants threaten strike at Orlando picketing event (Photo: Shutterstock)

“Will my summer travel plans be disrupted because of a flight attendant strike?” I’ve gotten this question several times now. The short answer here is probably not.

But at this rate, it’s not completely impossible.

Several flight attendant unions and U.S. airlines are currently engaged in negotiations as they look to ink new collective bargaining agreements (CBAs). This process is governed by Section 6 of the Railway Labor Act (RLA), a 1920s-era law that regulates labor relations for both railroads and air carriers. In a nutshell, the RLA prioritizes mediation to avoid the effects of a potential labor action on interstate commerce.

The National Mediation Board (NMB) – a federal agency – is in a sense ‘the administrator’ for the RLA. If a union and company are unable to reach an agreement through regular negotiations, the NMB can step in, if requested by either party, to facilitate discussions in an effort to reach a tentative agreement.

Many labor disputes don’t even make it to the NMB and it is rather rare for parties to exhaust the board’s mediation process. Still, it has happened before, and it could happen again.

Roughly 28,000 American Airlines flight attendants – represented by the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA) – are at this juncture. After several years of negotiating, the union and company are being called in by the NMB next week for a ‘last ditch’ attempt at a deal.

With such little progress being made and both parties saying they are still ‘far apart’ on several issues, it is difficult to imagine the NMB forcing the parties into additional mediated sessions. So, what happens next?

The RLA stipulates that if the NMB releases the parties from mediation for ‘self-help,’ it triggers a 30-day cooling-off period, during which time, both parties are prohibited from taking any self-help actions, such as a strike or lock-out. The NMB may proffer final and binding arbitration to both parties as a next step in the resolution process. However, if either party rejects arbitration, the 30-day cooling-off period clock continues ticking.

The NMB might then move to advise President Biden of the impasse between the parties and recommend the establishment of a Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) if it believes that a strike could inflict severe harm on the economy and interstate commerce.

Biden did this with the freight rail workers in 2022, so presidential intervention isn’t uncharted territory for the current Administration. Even so, the parties are not compelled to accept the PEB’s recommendations and would be free to exercise self-help at the end of the PEB’s process.

Following failure of the PEB process, Congress can also step in to pass legislation resolving the dispute, however, this is rare on the airline front. Again, this did resolve the rail workers’ dispute two years ago, which was on the verge of a strike action.

American flight attendants have gone on strike before in 1993. That strike resulted in mass cancellations just days before Thanksgiving. And of course at the time, American was a much smaller airline than it is today. But four days into the strike, President Clinton stepped in and successfully persuaded the parties to return to the table for final and binding arbitration, effectively ending the action.

Biden could certainly help broker a deal in this case, too, although it’s an election year, and he’s one of the most pro-union presidents in recent decades.

Assuming these so-called last-ditch mediation sessions fail next week, Biden will be left with some tough decisions to make and each one carries enormous political ramifications.

On one side, Biden could block a vocal labor group from striking as a pro-union candidate. On the other, he could risk economic harm, even if the world’s largest airline were to shut down for just a day.

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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