United Airlines & Flight Attendant Union In Bitter Retaliation Dispute

United Airlines management and the union representing flight attendants (AFL-CIO) are currently engaged in a dispute regarding the firing of two flight attendants, who are accused of retaliation. This situation is getting so serious that United’s management sent a letter to all flight attendants explaining the company’s side of the story.

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This incident started with a mask dispute

This incident involves a dispute between flight attendants back in 2020. Specifically, a junior flight attendant allegedly reported two senior flight attendants (who are also union officials) for not wearing their masks during the crew rest period on a flight. In their defense, the flight attendants claimed that the masks fell off while sleeping.

United conducted an investigation following this report, but it’s claimed that the union tried to block the investigation, while also trying to retaliate against the junior flight attendant who reported colleagues. An investigation revealed that the two flight attendants who were reported were behind the retaliation, and made up lies.

The two senior flight attendants have now been fired, leading to an extended court battle that has the potential to worsen labor relations at United.

This incident started with a 2020 flight

What United management says about the incident

On Thursday, United Airlines’ Senior Vice President of Inflight Service, John Slater, sent a memo to flight attendants sharing the company’s side of the story. As it’s explained, the company took the drastic measure of addressing all flight attendants about this because the union decided to publicize this case with misinformation.

According to the memo from management:

  • This situation began when a flight attendant “raised a legitimate safety concern to United, which led to the discipline of two flight attendants”

  • In response, “two union representatives presented unrelated allegations of misconduct by the reporting flight attendant to United, which proved to be completely false”

  • “These false reports resulted in a number of investigations over several months,” and “in these investigations, flight attendants revealed that the information against the reporting flight attendant was solicited by the two union representatives”

  • United doesn’t tolerate retaliation, any instances of this must be investigated, and the punishment for that can include termination, regardless of whether or not the employees in question are union representatives

  • The union took no actions to address the misconduct of the representatives, and offered no suggestions other than to have United investigate

  • The union filed a lawsuit in the summer of 2021 in federal courts, alleging that United violated the Railway Labor Act by issuing Letters of Investigation to the two flight attendants who held roles with the union

  • The court dismissed the lawsuit in January 2022, and found that “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,” and would “permit union representatives to retaliate against flight attendants who take disfavored actions”

Management is accusing the union of retaliation

What the flight attendant union says about the incident

In response to Thursday’s memo from United management, the flight attendant union issued a statement sharing its side of the story. According to this:

  • While the memo from Slater claimed to reveal facts, “it turns out he is giving an incomplete and company-oriented perspective on the matter”

  • The union deals with issues among flight attendants through the Professional Standards program that encourages parties to resolve problems, while United management “chooses to deal with disputes among employees with their typical approach, by mass firings and intimidation”

  • United management has fired almost a dozen flight attendants, which is the underlying problem here and why the union is trying to defend its right to representation and due process

  • United management has “no problem publicly going after long time flight attendants who received a sham investigation from the company before pushing forward with termination proceedings”

  • Management has ignored the fact that the contract contains the right to a fair hearing, and there is a process that includes binding arbitration

  • The union won’t publicly go into details about the case, so won’t comment on the underlying issue other than to say that it “vehemently disagrees with the company’s presentation of the facts.”

  • The union is angry about “United’s punitive approach to problems and complete lack of respect for union rights”

  • The union claims that the court didn’t determine the merits of the union’s arguments that management violated the Railway Labor Act, but rather ruled that the dispute must be settled by an arbitrator through the contractual procedure

The union argues management isn’t following its agreement

My take on this very strange dispute

Let me start by saying that I’m neither strongly for or against unions. I respect the right for employees to form unions. I think unions do good things, but I also think some unions do not-so-great things.

Delta and Southwest are both known for having among the best service of US airlines, yet flight attendants at the former airline aren’t unionized, while flight attendants at the latter union are unionized. So both models can work, especially if management respects employees.

With that out of the way, a few thoughts about this particular case:

  • The basis of this dispute is odd to begin with, and I can’t help but wonder what the backstory here is; were the two senior flight attendants simply flouting mask rules, was there already a dispute between the junior flight attendant and the two senior ones, or what?

  • It’s interesting how management directly addresses the incident that happened, while the union refuses to address it directly

  • If there’s any truth to what happened (that union reps tried to retaliate by taking action against a junior flight attendant who reported them), then that’s totally screwed up and they should be punished accordingly

  • It’s interesting to see how under Scott Kirby’s leadership, United really is acting with conviction, rather than waffling and being inactive; the company has taken a hard stance when it comes to firing some unvaccinated employees, and it seems that United is taking a zero tolerance approach by firing those who violate certain rules

  • I’d be curious to know how most United flight attendants feel about this situation; this doesn’t seem like a full-on management vs. union battle, but rather seems to be a battle between the company and senior union officials who are looking out for one another

Bottom line

United Airlines management is engaged in a battle with AFL-CIO, the union representing flight attendants. This issue dates back over a year, and involves a 2020 flight where a junior flight attendant reported two senior flight attendants (who were also union officials) for violating mask rules during a flight.

It’s reported that the union then tried to retaliate against the junior flight attendant, including making up false allegations. The union has been trying to sue the company over this incident, but hasn’t gotten far as of now. I’m curious to see how this situation evolves.

What do you make of this dispute? To those with inside knowledge, any clue what the sentiment is about this among rank and file flight attendants?

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