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Flight attendants across the country picket for better pay and working conditions

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

If you flew somewhere today, you may have encountered something like this.

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UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Chanting) My neck, my back - we need a new contract. My neck, my back...

KELLY: About two-thirds of the country's flight attendants are in contract talks, including those at United, American, Southwest and Alaska. And today was their day of action to call attention to their demands. NPR's Andrea Hsu has more.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: The flight attendants and their unions have been quick to point out today's action was not a strike and not meant to disrupt travel. Weather in the Northeast took care of that. But at more than 30 airports, including in Seattle and San Francisco, Austin and Charlotte and Reagan National Airport just outside Washington, D.C., flight attendants marched, chanted and punched signs into the air, all to demand more.

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UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: Stronger together.

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HSU: Chip Lowe has flown with United for seven years.

CHIP LOWE: You know, the company on all these quarterly earnings calls is saying how great these record profits are and how great the organization is doing, but they're not talking about how they're paying their flight attendants fairly.

HSU: Last year the major airlines gave pilots historic raises. Now flight attendants, who start out earning 35 to $45,000 a year, want the same. Valerie Worsham, who joined Southwest two years ago, says she has to fly a lot and be away from home a lot.

VALERIE WORSHAM: Just to be able to bring home a decent paycheck.

HSU: Contributing to this is the boarding pay issue. Flight attendants only get their hourly pay once the aircraft door is closed. So when Worsham reports for a flight, she gets briefed by the boarding agent and the captain. There are pre-flight safety checks to do. She starts the boarding process.

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WORSHAM: Some people need special assistance getting on board. We have unaccompanied minors. We have people that are traveling with service animals.

HSU: In other words, it's a lot.

WORSHAM: All of this stuff is going on before the door shuts. So keep in mind, once the door's shut, that's when the actual clock is ticking for us to start getting paid.

HSU: Southwest flight attendants actually rejected a tentative agreement last year, in part because it didn't include boarding pay. Meanwhile, American's flight attendants have come to an agreement that would provide half their hourly wage during boarding. But they want other improvements in the contract, including higher wages, and they're ready to strike to get it. Here's Allie Malis.

ALLIE MALIS: We have not had a raise in five years here at American Airlines. We've had a long pandemic, a lot of inflation. We want a contract, but if we have to strike to get a contract, we will.

HSU: That is if the federal government allows it. Flight attendant unions can't just call a strike. Under federal law, airline workers must get permission to strike. The union representing American Airlines flight attendants has now twice asked for that permission and will present its case before the National Mediation Board next month. Now, the last time flight attendants went on strike was 30 years ago, when American's flight attendants walked out just before Thanksgiving.

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UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #3: (Chanting) Unity pays. Unity pays.

HSU: Then President Clinton intervened just in time to save travelers' holiday plans, ordering the two sides to resume talks. Today, the airlines say they value the contributions of flight attendants, and they're committed to working toward industry-leading agreements in upcoming negotiation sessions scheduled for next month and beyond. Valerie Worsham, the Southwest flight attendant, hopes they'll keep this in mind.

WORSHAM: Without us being on the airplane, that airplane does not go up in the air; does it?

HSU: Nope. Nope.

It's hard to argue with that. Andrea Hsu, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TANK AND THE BANGAS SONG, "TSA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Andrea Hsu
Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.