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Southwest Airlines Pilots Set to Vote on First-Ever Strike

The action follows a disastrous few weeks for the airline and its customers

by Lauren Smith

January 19, 2023

Photo: Southwest Airlines pilots. Courtesy of Southwest Airlines / Stephen M. Keller, 2020

Southwest Airlines pilots will vote in May on whether to authorize a strike, citing three years of stalled negotiations with the carrier over contracts and a holiday meltdown that stranded staff far from home.

The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association calls for better work rules and scheduling for workers. In a letter to pilots, Southwest captain and union president Casey Murray also stated the union wants “gratitude pay to compensation our pilots who suffered through the meltdown.”

Southwest’s Ramp Agent marshalling aircraft in the snow at Dallas (Love Field) Photo: Courtesy of Southwest Airlines / Stephen M. Keller

During the Christmas chaos—when Southwest struggled to recover from a nationwide blizzard and canceled 16,700 flights—pilots and flight attendants faced hours on hold with the airline while trying to reach schedulers and hotel services. Analysts have also pointed to an archaic scheduling system as one of the causes of Southwest’s difficulties in December.

This is the first time the airline’s pilots’ union has called for a strike authorization vote. Murray cited multiple reasons: “Three years in the negotiating room, very little progress [and] a Christmas meltdown that has just defined what all of our problems are, have led us to this decision.”

The vote could begin on May 1—a timeline that would “give our customers time to book elsewhere so that they may have confidence in their summer vacations, honeymoons, and family outings,” he added.

Photo: Courtesy of Southwest Airlines / Stephen M. Keller

But even if pilots vote to authorize the walkout, the potential strike still has to clear significant hurdles, specifically, the strict labor laws that govern when workers in airline and rail industries can strike.

The Railway Labor Act, passed in 1926, requires a federal National Mediation Board to intervene in disputes between unions and transport management. If the National Mediation Board declares the two sides are at an impasse, it triggers a 90-day cooling-off period during which unions cannot strike, and management cannot lock out workers. At the end of the 90 days, Congress can vote to impose a contract on the two sides and block a strike, as it did in December when freight rail unions moved to strike.

Meanwhile, Southwest said business would continue as usual. “The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association’s call for an authorization vote does not affect Southwest’s operation or our ability to take care of our customers,” Adam Carlisle, vice president of labor relations at Southwest, said in a statement.

“We will continue to follow the process outlined in the Railway Labor Act and work under the assistance of the National Mediation Board toward reaching an agreement that rewards our pilots and places them competitively in the industry.”

Southwest Airlines / Photo: Courtesy of Southwest Airlines

Carlisle added that federal mediation between the two sides is scheduled to resume on January 24.

Southwest pilots are not the only airline employees agitating for better working conditions and a bigger share of the industry’s recovery. In October, Delta Air Lines pilots voted overwhelmingly to authorize strike action. However, that walkout was averted after the union and company agreed on a new contract.

American Airlines and United Airlines are also currently negotiating with employees who have been hosting informational pickets at airports.