Home Statewide Politics Alaska Airlines Profits Soar, But Flight Attendant Wages Stay Grounded

Alaska Airlines Profits Soar, But Flight Attendant Wages Stay Grounded

Photo courtesy of Peggy Wilcox
Photo courtesy of Peggy Wilcox

Between 150 and 200 Alaska Airlines flight attendants and their supporters held an informational picket downtown on Thursday afternoon. The picket was scheduled to coincide with an Alaska Air Group annual shareholders meeting at the Anchorage Museum.

The flight attendants, who have been in negotiations for three years with Alaska Airlines, are members of the Association of Flight Attendants-Communication Workers of America (AFA-CWA), the largest union of flight attendants. AFA-CWA is an affiliate union of the AFL-CIO.

On Thursday, spirits were high at the picket and the weather sunny and warm. The flight attendants, mostly Anchorage-based, were supplemented by local members of the Alaska Public Employees Association/American Federation of Teachers, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Laborers Local 341, Unite HERE, staff of the Alaska AFL-CIO, and one enthusiastically vocal Saint Bernard. Forrest Dunbar, running as a Democrat for Alaska’s lone U.S. House seat, was also present to express support and introduce himself.

AFA members passed out leaflets to passersby and motorists. The leaflets noted that Alaska Air Group stock, which trades publicly as ALK, had gone from $33 per share in May, 2012, to over $92 at time of printing. (ALK finished May 8 over $94 per share.) Alaska Air Group is the parent company of both Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air, which is branded as Alaska Airlines but operates with a separate FAA certificate.

Photo courtesy of Peggy Wilcox

Following the picket, AFA President at Alaska Airlines Jeffrey Peterson announced to the picketers that Alaska management had invited the union leadership in to the shareholders meeting to explain the union’s position. Employee shareholders were able to stay for the duration.

Alaska Airlines had a rocky start to the 21st Century. In January, 2000, Alaska flight 261 crashed off the coast of southern California, killing all 88 people onboard. The attacks of September 11 occurred just as the company was beginning to recover from that accident. Alaska management sought to fix the financial condition of the airline at the bargaining table. In the post-9/11 aviation environment, nearly every major air carrier used bankruptcy to circumvent their labor contracts. Unions at Alaska took concessions for many years to keep the airline out of bankruptcy and protect their benefits.

Alaska has since recovered, and then some. In January, the company announced record profits for 2013, and last month, it announced a record first quarter profit for 2014. Alaska workers, including flight attendants, are saying it is time for the company to give some of those dollars back.

The AFA faces some challenges. Members rejected by a large margin a tentative agreement with the company in February. They had been negotiating concurrently with other unions on the Alaska property. Now, they are the only union without a deal. That isolation weakens their bargaining power.

Also, as transportation workers, the flight attendants work under the Railway Labor Act (RLA). That federal law stipulates that transportation contracts do not expire, but merely become amendable on a date agreed to by the union and the company. Alaska flight attendants’ current contract became amendable in May, 2012. Any flight attendants who are at the top of the pay scale cannot receive raises until a new agreement is reached. Obviously, there is little incentive for the company to bargain swiftly. The only legitimate recourse for the union is to appeal to the National Mediation Board, which oversees the RLA, for arbitration. The AFA did that last May.

The RLA prohibits workers from utilizing their method of last resort, the strike, without the express consent of the government. This is a virtual impossibility because of the politics and economics involved.

However, one thing the union has on its side is popular appeal. Flight attendants are the most visible workers of an airline and are typically viewed most favorably by passengers. They provide a clear and visible service while onboard. Coupled with the public financial success of Alaska Airlines and the help of federal mediation, the AFA may yet be able to reach its goal of a swift agreement with the company that improves upon the one members rejected while recognizing their profound contribution to Alaska’s success.