For more information about this struggle, read “Thousands of Alaska Airlines pilots to take strike vote”
In a near unanimous 99% strike authorization vote that saw 96% turnout, the 3,100 pilots at Alaska Airlines voted May 25 to strike if necessary against their employer. The pilots have been in grueling contract negotiations with the company for three years now and are prepared to break new ground to win a fair contract by going on their first strike.
Understaffing crisis deepens
At the forefront of the fight are the pilots’ demands to address worsening understaffing and retention issues, and to end the dehumanizing scheduling system that has taken away their control over their lives. As understaffing gets worse, so too does the workload for pilots.
These issues have only deepened over the course of negotiations with Alaska hemorrhaging new and veteran pilots to other airlines. Captain Will McQuillen, a pilot for 16 years at Alaska, said that, “During exit interviews, time and time again pilots are leaving to other carriers for better quality of life.”
As a result, the airline has been forced to cancel more and more flights. Notably, when the pilots held their largest ever 1,500 person informational picket line on April 1, the airline was forced to cancel 9% of all flights. Alaska is currently attempting to hire another 150 new pilots and reduce the flight schedule in June, but it is doubtful they will be able to fill those positions until Alaska agrees to a fair contract for pilots.
With the rapid rise in air travel, there is a fast growing demand for pilots. Companies are announcing aggressive hiring plans totaling more than 8,000 pilot jobs by the end of the year. These are the same jobs that Alaska pilots are losing their seniority to take. Economists call this a “tight labor market,” but to working people, this means extra leverage against the boss.
Strike or bust
Labor law in the airline industry is covered by the Railway Labor Act, which puts unjust additional restrictions on how unions working with transportation infrastructure go on strike. As a result, the Alaska union must now enter into mediation until the federal mediator deems that further talks will not be productive, an opportunity for intervention by a Presidential Emergency Board, and then a 30-day “cooling off” period. If that all fails, the union can finally go on strike.
This fight by Alaska pilots echoes the recent struggle by 17,000 railroad engineers at BNSF happening in parallel this year. BNSF workers have similarly been in contract negotiations to address draconian attendance policies and worsening understaffing issues. After being blocked from going on strike by a judge, the union continued to put public pressure on BNSF to cave in to their demands.
Since BNSF enacted the new attendance system in February, 700 of their workers have quit to find a better quality of life elsewhere. Under significant public pressure and to stop losing their workforce, the company caved in and reversed the new attendance policy.
Alaska pilots have demonstrated their unity and resolve with this vote and will continue to build pressure on the airline. The perfect storm is brewing for the workers. With mounting public pressure on the company, constant attrition of pilots to their competitors, and the massive strike threat just on the horizon, the airline will be under immense pressure to accept the workers’ just demands.