American Airlines negotiated with its flight attendants union into the night Tuesday in an attempt to avert a 48-hour strike that was scheduled to begin at 10:01 p.m. PST on Tuesday.
After an announcement by the independent Assn. of Professional Flight Attendants that members had voted to authorize a strike, negotiating teams for both side returned to the bargaining table in Dallas late Tuesday afternoon in an effort to resolve longstanding disagreements over wages and working conditions.
The primary controversy focuses on the two-tier pay system inaugurated in 1983 that set starting salaries for flight attendants at $11,600 a year, while senior flight attendants were making nearly three times that amount.
American Airlines officials said they have replacement flight attendants trained to fill in if the threatened walkout occurs. American flies to 150 cities in the United States and abroad, and airline officials vowed that service would not be disrupted by a strike.
American, after its recent acquisition of AirCal, has 38 flights daily from John Wayne Airport in Orange County to Chicago, Dallas, Oakland, Sacramento, San Francisco and Seattle.
Striking attendants would be "permanently replaced," according to Steve McGregor, an airline spokesman. "Our position is that the strike is illegal," McGregor added.
He acknowledged that the flight attendants were dissatisfied but said: "The union membership is badly split. . . . We'd be surprised if any more than 200 of (union president) Patt Gibbs' workers go out. . . . She doesn't have support in the rank and file."
Union officials claimed they had the strong backing of the membership and scoffed at the idea that the strike was illegal, saying the federal Railway Labor Act, which also governs airlines, clearly allows the union to act in its own interests after federal mediation efforts have broken down.
"We have been in negotiations for a year and half, trying to negotiate an equitable contract," said Kathy Kelly, a Los Angeles-based spokeswoman for the 12,100-member union, which represents only American Airline flight attendants. "The company has refused to negotiate with us . . . and (unilaterally) imposed work rules in June, (so) we decided to call a solidarity strike to protest their unfair labor practices."
The unusual two-day work stoppage was called by the union in an effort to break the bargaining impasse and avoid a prolonged strike similar to that waged by Trans World Airlines flight attendants in 1986, other union sources said. An estimated 4,000 TWA employees lost their jobs in that strike.
The proposed strike is seen as a test of strength in the struggle between the flight attendants and the company. If enough of the flight attendants stay away from the job, the strike conceivably could ground some flights and cut into the airline's service in Los Angeles and elsewhere because federal air safety regulations require that a minimum number of trained attendants be on board before a flight can take off.
Union officials said that 4,000 of their members fly each day and that the company has trained about 600 supervisory personnel to replace strikers. Company officials would not say how many temporary flight attendants they have qualified to fill in should a strike occur, but they said the number was "far greater" than 600.
There are about 1,400 union members based in Los Angeles, the union's Kathy Kelly said. She predicted that if the attendants walk out, as planned, the job action could affect up to 100 flights leaving Los Angeles International Airport today and again Thursday. The strike would end at 10 p.m. PST Christmas Eve.
The results of the strike authorization were announced to the membership Tuesday during simultaneous closed door meetings in Dallas, Los Angeles and Washington. The meetings were linked by telephone conference call.
The actual vote count was not announced to the media after the meeting, but there were indications that not all of the members were in favor of walking out. One strident voice could be heard by reporters outside the meeting room at the Los Angeles Airport Amfac Hotel saying, "I am not willing to put my job on the line . . . not at this time."
American was the first airline to win the controversial two-tier pay scale concession from a flight attendants' union. The average pay scale for the "B-scale" attendants hired after the 1983 agreement is $13,000 a year, while "A-scale" attendants working before that time average $27,000 a year, union officials said.
When that contract expired, union negotiators went to the bargaining table demanding an end to the two-tier system. The company balked, saying it needed the pay differentials to remain competitive. Union officials scoffed, contending that American was the most profitable airline in the industry.