Why Can't American Airlines Pilots Go on Strike?

Why Can't American Airlines Pilots Go on Strike?

Why Can't American Airlines Pilots Go on Strike?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Feb. 17 1999 7:31 PM

Why Can't American Airlines Pilots Go on Strike?

Last week, over a quarter of the pilots at American Airlines called in sick. A federal judge ordered them back to work. Why did pilots choose a so-called "sick-out" rather than a plain vanilla strike? And why did a federal judge prohibit this sick-out?

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The aggrieved pilots resorted to a sick-out because federal law makes it very difficult for railway and airline employees to strike. Under the Railway Labor Act, airline employees must participate in a lengthy mediation process expressly designed to force a resolution before they can strike. If mediation fails, the president may order a 60-day cooling-off period--during which airline workers must return to work--if he feels a strike would substantially disrupt the national transportation system. If this fails, Congress may force both sides to accept a settlement, or may extend the cooling-off period indefinitely. This is what happened to American Airlines pilots two years ago: President Clinton ordered the cooling-off period four minutes after they went on strike, and they were forced to accept a settlement.

The Railway Labor Act outlaws sick-outs because they're just an end-run around the purpose of the law, which is to prevent transportation strikes. Accordingly, a federal judge threatened to fine the pilots' union for encouraging the sick-out and the union backed down. As of Tuesday, Feb. 16, only 400 of American's 9,200 pilots called in sick. Since only about half of American's pilots work on a given day, this means that around eight percent of pilots are still sick. Astoundingly, American Airlines says this is typical of a February day.

Other critical professions--such as teachers, policemen, and other municipal employees--are also specifically discouraged from striking by federal and state laws. More generally, the president can order a cooling-off period for any industry if a strike endangers the "national health and safety"--a much higher standard, however, than merely disrupting national transportation.

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Explainer thanks Professor Kate Bronfenbrenner of Cornell Law School.