In all my years covering United Airlines on live and fly, I can’t remember ever seeing such a public and bitter war of words between the airline and the union representing its flight attendants. But is union anger justified? And could there be an underground civil war within the ranks of flight attendants?
War of words between United Airlines and AFA Flight Attendants Union
It’s a very complex story and I’ve done my best to take the time to try to fully understand all the nuances and summarize it accurately:
- In September 2020, a flight attendant “caught” two co-workers with their masks down aboard a flight, in violation of United employee mask guidelines and the federal mask mandate.
- Rather than raising the issue directly with flight attendants or using the union’s internal grievance system, photos were taken and submitted to United
- United investigated, which also included notifying the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) so that, by contract, they could also investigate and represent flight attendants who allegedly violated the policy.
- Jill Collins and Donna Matallana, veteran United flight attendants and AFA representatives, have been chosen to investigate the matter on behalf of the AFA.
- Per United, two more flight attendants have come forward to report allegations of misconduct against the reporting flight attendant (the one who took the photo)
- These allegations turned out to be unfounded.
- As United continued to dig, he claims to have discovered that the Collins and Matallana solicited ‘dirt’ about the stewardess and pushed other flight attendants to come forward in an attempt to smear the flight attendant. ‘flight attendant.
- Labeling this as retaliation, Collins and Matallana are being fired
- The AFA went on to allege United bullied the two flight attendants, but the judge dismissed the lawsuit on procedural grounds, noting that the flight attendants’ collective bargaining agreement (CBA) required arbitration.
- But the judge also added: ‘The union’s position would grant union representatives complete immunity from discipline for acts in violation of the CLA so long as those violations occurred in the performance of their union duties’
- The judge rejected such a “mask of immunity,” adding that the AFA solution “would allow union representatives to retaliate against flight attendants who take adverse action.”
- However, the AFA insists that “if management is allowed to question [u]union representatives on matters within the scope of representation, it will destroy the grievance process and our ability to represent our member” (i.e. United’s act of investigation constitutes intimidation)
- No date has been set for the case to go to arbitration.
A civil war within the ranks of United Airlines flight attendants?
There’s a dirty little secret when it comes to the seniority-based flight attendant system at United Airlines and other US airlines: It breeds enormous hostility within the ranks.
live and fly covered this during the pandemic, when United’s senior flight attendants were unwilling to make concessions to their junior colleagues in order to save their jobs (a taxpayer-funded bailout ultimately saved all the jobs, but this was questioned for many weeks).
> Find out more: United Flight Attendant Union sells its junior members
But beyond that, I’ve spoken to many flight attendants about it and while it’s certainly not pervasive, there’s tremendous resentment (in some cases pure envy) that some ‘senior mums’ (their words, not mine) can hold lines and work great hours while stuck in worklist (they don’t have fixed hours, but instead are dispatched to where they’re needed on a working day given).
Rather than adapting an “I’ll get there someday” approach, some junior flight attendants seek out senior flight attendant attrition by calling them out for taking the kind of liberties that many senior employees take in any workplace. what industry. Sometimes this “gossip” is justified, sometimes not.
In its own memo to flight attendants, the AFA notes, “Flight attendants have faced difficult times over the past few years, which sometimes creates differences within the work group.” I read this as an admission of hostility between juniors and seniors.
And from the union’s perspective, you can understand why they’re unhappy with the flight attendant’s report. Why were flight attendants without masks not approached? Or the purser? How long did they even take off their mask? Why didn’t the flight attendant use the Professional Standards Program, which encourages flight attendants to resolve workplace grievances within the union?
The answer seems clear: the flight attendant wanted flight attendants without masks to be fired.
However, retaliation by telling stories against the flight attendant strikes me as the worst fear and intimidation.
And therein lies the crux of the civil war: the problem is why a junior flight attendant felt the need to report a senior flight attendant to United. Was it because the junior stewardess knew the issue wouldn’t be taken seriously if kept in-house? Or was it because the junior flight attendant was simply upset about the massive imbalance between junior and senior flight attendants at United?
AFA united attack
Even with the background that United could not have investigated the incident had they not been made aware of it by a flight attendant, the AFA declined to provide details of the matter, having lunch at instead what can only be described as a war of words against United:
“We can and will talk about the underlying issues here, which are United’s punitive approach to issues and the complete lack of respect for union rights.”
Meanwhile, John Slater, United’s senior vice president of inflight services, said:
“United and the AFA have worked together during one of the most challenging times in aviation history and will continue to champion the interests of our flight attendants. I look forward to a good working relationship with the AFA, but our top priority will always be to protect our people.
This is a war not just over this case, but also over the line between interference and due diligence when it comes to United investigating its own employees. It is not entirely unreasonable for the union to seek autonomy in the way it investigates grievances.
But to many, including this author, it appears the AFA is trying to cover up retaliation against another flight attendant. I hope it doesn’t, because it will really diminish the credibility of the AFA and further divide the flight attendants. No one should defend flight attendants encouraged to file false memberships against a crew member, even if the crew member was an anti-union “snitch”.
It’s a complicated case with far greater implications than just whether a flight attendant faced retaliation for whistleblowing on co-workers who didn’t wear that mask. The question goes to the heart of who really represents the union.
(Thanks to View From The Wing and Paddle Your Own Kanoo for their coverage and helping me put the puzzle pieces together)
picture: United Airlines