Southwest pilots authorize a strike

Pilots at Southwest Airlines are the latest to authorize their union to strike. 

On Thursday, the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA) closed its strike authorization vote, announcing 98% participation by union membership and 99% approval of the referendum.

“The lack of leadership and the unwillingness to address the failures of our organization have led us to this point,” SWAPA president Casey Murray said in a prepared statement. “Our pilots are tired of apologizing to our passengers on behalf of a company that refuses to place its priorities on its internal and external customers.” 

Southwest pilots, whose contract with the airline became amendable in September 2020, join American pilots in completing a recent strike authorization. American pilots authorized the Allied Pilots Association (APA) to strike last month. 

But like the APA authorization, the SWAPA vote does not mean that Southwest pilots are on strike, or that one is imminent. Pilot unions often use strike authorizations for negotiating leverage.

In addition, under the Railway Labor Act, which regulates job actions in the airline industry, Southwest pilots cannot strike until the National Mediation Board decides that additional mediation would not be effective. The board would then offer the parties an opportunity to go to arbitration. If either the union or Southwest management were to reject arbitration, the parties would be required to wait 30 days before initiating a strike or lockout.

In a statement, Southwest noted that the airline and SWAPA remain in mediation, and that 99% of cases overseen by the National Mediation Board since 1980 have resulted in agreements. 

“Our negotiating team continues to bargain in good faith and work toward reaching a new agreement to reward our pilots,” said Adam Carlisle, vice president labor relations at Southwest Airlines. “This anticipated authorization vote result does not change our commitment to the negotiation process, and we look forward to continuing discussions with SWAPA at the negotiating table.” 

Still, the authorization vote speaks to the strong pressure that U.S. airlines continue to be under from pilots’ unions, whose leverage has increased due to the ongoing U.S. pilot shortage. Pilots at a number of U.S. airlines have won substantial raises and other concessions in recent months, including Delta pilots, who secured a 34% raise over four years in early March. 

United pilots are also negotiating hard. On Friday, United pilots, represented by the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), are picketing at 10 airports Friday. Along with more compensation, ALPA’s United shop is calling for improved working rules and a better scheduling system.

Southwest pilots, meanwhile, have been vocal about technology shortcomings and operational failures at the airline — especially the late 2022 meltdown in which Southwest canceled 16,700 flights between Dec. 21 and Dec. 31 in the wake of a major winter storm.

The union urged flyers to book on other carriers so that their plans through the summer and fall are not disrupted.

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