United Airlines Finds Itself At War With Flight Attendants Union

In all my years of covering United Airlines on Live and Let’s Fly, I cannot recall ever seeing such a public and bitter war of words between the airline and the union representing its flights attendants. But is the union anger justified? And might there actually be a clandestine civil war going on within flight attendant ranks?

War Of Words Between United Airlines And AFA Flight Attendants Union

This is a very complex story and I’ve done my best to take the time to try to properly understand all the nuances to it and summarize it accurately:

  • In September 2020, a flight attendant “caught” two colleagues with their masks down onboard of a flight, in contravention of United’s employee mask guidelines and the federal mask mandate
  • Rather than address the matter directly with the flight attendants or use the union’s internal grievance system, pictures were taken and submitted to United
  • United investigated, which also included notifying the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) so that, per contract, they could also investigate and represent the flight attendants who allegedly violated the policy
  • Jill Collins and Donna Matallana, veteran United flight attendants and AFA representatives, were chosen to investigate the matter on behalf of the AFA
  • Per United, two other flight attendants came forward to report allegations of misconduct against the reporting flight attendant (the one who took the picture)
  • Those allegations proved to be unfounded
  • As United kept digging, it claims it found that the Collins and Matallana solicited “dirt” about the reporting flight attendant and pushed for other flight attendants to come forward in an attempt to smear the reporting flight attendant
  • Labeling this as retaliation, Collins and Matallana are in the process of being terminated
  • The AFA sued alleging that United intimidated the two flight attendants, but the judge dismissed the lawsuit on procedural grounds, noting that the flight attendant collective bargaining agreement (CBA) required arbitration
  • But the judge also added, “The union’s position would provide union representatives with complete immunity from discipline for acts in violation of the CBA so long as those violations took place while conducting union duties”
  • The judge rejected such a “cloak of immunity,” adding the AFA’s solution would “permit union representatives to retaliate against flight attendants who take disfavored actions.”
  • However, the AFA insists that “if management is allowed to interrogate [u]nion representatives on questions within the scope of representation, it will destroy the grievance procedure and our ability to represent our member” (ie United’s act of investigation constitutes intimidation)
  • A date has not been set for the matter to go to arbitration

A Civil War Within United Airlines Flight Attendant Ranks?

There’s a dirty little secret when it comes to the seniority-driven flight attendant system at United Airlines and other US airlines: it breeds tremendous hostility within the ranks.

Live and Let’s Fly covered this during the pandemic, when senior flight attendants at United were unwilling to make any concessions to their junior colleagues in order to save their jobs (a taxpayer-funded bailout eventually saved all jobs, but that was in doubt for many weeks).


> Read More: United Flight Attendant Union Sells Out Its Junior Members


But beyond that, I’ve spoken to many flight attendants about this and while certainly not ubiquitous, there is tremendous resentment (in some cases pure envy) that some “senior mamas” (their words, not mine) can hold lines and work amazing hours while they are stuck working reserve (they have no set schedules, but rather are sent where they are needed on any given work day).

Rather than adapting an “I’ll get there one day” approach, some junior flight attendants seek senior flight attendant attrition by ratting them out for taking the sort of liberties that many senior employees in any industry take. Sometimes this “tattling” is justified, sometimes it is not.

In its own memo to flight attendants, the AFA notes, “Flight Attendants face difficult times over the last several years which at times creates differences within the work group.” I read that as an admission of the hostility between juniors and seniors.

And from the union’s perspective, you can understand why it is not happy with the reporting flight attendant. Why weren’t the maskless flight attendants approached? Or the purser? How long did they even have their masks off? Why did the flight attendant not use the Professional Standards program, which encourages flight attendants to resolve workplaces grievances within the union?

The answer seems clear: the flight attendant wanted the maskless flight attendants fired.

However, retaliation by ginning up stories against the reporting flight attendant strike me as the worst of kind of fear and intimidation.

And that is the heart of the civil war: the issue is why a junior flight attendant felt the need to rat out a senior flight attendant to United. Was it because the junior flight attendant knew the concern would not be taken seriously if kept internal? Or was it because the junior flight attendant was simply upset about the massive imbalance between junior and senior flight attendants at United?

AFA Attacks United

Even with the backdrop that United could not have investigated the incident if it was not made aware of it by a flight attendant, the AFA has refused to offer any details about the case, instead lunching what can only be labeled a war of words against United :

“We can and will talk about the underlying issues here which are United’s punitive approach to problems and 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 collaboratively through one of the most challenging times in aviation history and will continue to be advocates on our flight attendants’ behalf. I look forward to a good working relationship with the AFA, but our top priority will always be protecting our people.”

This is a war not just over this case, but over the fine line between interference and due diligence when it comes to United investigating its own employees. The union is not wholly unreasonable to seek autonomy in the way in which it investigates grievances.

But to many, including this author, it sounds like the the AFA is trying to cover up retaliation against another flight attendant. I hope that is not the case, for it will truly diminish credibility of the AFA and further divide flight attendants. No one should defend flight attendants being encouraged to lodge false accessions against a crewmmeber, even if the crewmebers was an anti-union “snitch.”

CONCLUSION

This is a complicated case with implications far greater than merely whether a flight attendant was retaliated against for ratting out co-workers who failed to wear this masks. The issue gets to the heart of who the union actually represents.

(Thanks to View From The Wing and Paddle Your Own Kanoo for their coverage and helping me put the pieces of the puzzle together)


image: United Airlines

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