American Airlines flight attendants to Biden: Set us free to strike
People passing through an airport. Flight attendants at American Airlines rallied at the White House for living wages. | Rick Bowmer/AP

WASHINGTON—Imagine moving back in with your mother, at age 31, because you can’t afford to rent your New York City apartment. Your pay is too low, even with a second (or third) job. You now face a two-hour one-way commute to work at New York’s airports on Long Island’s expressways.

There is an alternative to that drive, though. “We have many flight attendants who live out of their cars,” says D.C.-area resident, and flight attendant, Diane Britton.

Or imagine being forced to buy “toxic uniforms” and wear them to work?

The uniforms made you break out in rashes, Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA) member Alex Roberts explained. When you switched to regular clothes to drive to your job at Washington National Airport, changing to those uniforms when you arrived, you got written up.

Not only that, but you had to shell out $1,300 in cash for those toxic togs. For a rookie like D.C.-area resident Youdline Joseph, that’s one of every 21 dollars of your gross annual pay.

A lawsuit led to new non-toxic uniforms two years ago, before Joseph joined American Airlines. But she had to pay for those new uniforms, too—same price—before choosing between car payments and auto insurance, and while turning to family, friends, and notoriously rapacious payday lenders for help.

Welcome to the not-so-wonderful world of the 27,000 flight attendants of American Airlines. They haven’t had a new contract, or a raise, since 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic hit. They’re hurting big time. And it led them to picket in front of Democratic President Joe Biden’s White House on May 9, demanding his federal board grant them the right to strike.

While Joseph, Roberts, Britton, and other attendants interviewed struggle along, American raked in $53 billion last year and its CEO took home $31 million. The flight attendants’ annual starting pay is $27,000, and that’s before taxes. No wonder picketers carried “Corporate greed doesn’t fly” signs.

And American led all airlines in federal subsidies—loans, grants, and direct aid–during the pandemic, when planes and flight crews, including flight attendants, flew, sans passengers. Including payroll support payments, American got $13.39 billion in those years, the Airline Pilots Association reports.

Since the old contract ran out five years ago, American’s bosses have refused to bargain a new one. Among the nation’s four dominant airlines, Southwest has settled with its flight attendants, the week before. The workers achieved “industry-leading” pay and compensation packages, one speaker said.

That’s for sure. Western New York Labor Today reported the 20,000 Southwest flight attendants, who’ve been bargaining since 2018, won “an immediate 22 percent snap-up raise and three raises in 2025, 2026, and 2027” plus $364.2 million in retroactive back pay. “Remember this when your boss says ‘Unions don’t work,’” their union, Transport Workers Local 556, exulted.

Doesn’t even cover rent

By contrast, “$27,000 doesn’t even pay for the rent anymore,” said Julie Hedrick, national president of the American attendants’ union, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA), whose union is independent of the AFL-CIO.

Armed with a bullhorn to ensure Biden would hear their cause, Hedrick narrated the tale of talks which American Airlines honchos have grounded. She led the D.C. group in chants and explained their case. The AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department supports the APFA members. It learned of their picketing the night before, and backs them, spokeswoman Samantha Brown e-mailed.

The 99-year-old Railway Labor Act, which covers rail and airline workers, says flight attendants—and other airline employees–can’t strike unless the National Mediation Board sets them free to do so. The law also bans a boss’s lockout without NMB approval. Strikes and lockouts are “self-help,” the act says. With no credible strike threat, APFA and other rail and air carrier unions argue, talks stagnate.

Democratic President Joe Biden names the NMB members, with Senate consent. So his role brought at least 50 American Airlines flight attendants to Lafayette Park, across from Biden’s front door.

Their demand was straightforward: Since American drags the talks out, even with a mediator there, have NMB set its flight attendants, APFA members all, free to engage in “self-help” i.e. strike.

The White House wasn’t the sole host for a May 9 picket line. Union members also picketed at Logan Airport in Boston, at O’Hare Airport in Chicago, the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport, Miami’s airport, JFK Airport in New York, the Philadelphia airport, LAX in Los Angeles, Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport and airports in Pittsburgh, Charlotte, N.C., and San Diego.

They picketed twice in Dallas-Fort Worth, once at George W. Bush International Airport and a second line that afternoon at American’s headquarters, “as American Airlines management heads home for the evening,” an APFA release said.

There are other reasons the flight attendants interviewed said they need a contract and a raise. As one put it, “We do more than just serve drinks” to passengers.

The attendants deal with unruly and sometimes violent passengers, lead emergency evacuations, seek and administer medicine when a flyer becomes ill, and manage boarding on the ground, too.

“We’ve been lobbying to get Narcan, which is like epinephrine,” onto medical kits on planes, says Roberts, who, when he’s not flying, is legislative director for APFA’s D.C. local. The Narcan helps when people suffer reactions aboard a flight from prior drug overdoses, he explained.

“We’ve got try everything we can to save lives,” says Roberts, and should be paid accordingly. “At 30,000 feet, we’re the closest thing to a physician on that plane,” unless an M.D. is aboard.

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.