CHICAGO - Flight attendants for two of Chicago’s largest airlines protested at Midway and O’Hare airports on Tuesday, demanding new contracts that would provide better economic and working conditions.
Those changes are important for a work force that, union leaders said, is suffering from burnout due to the pandemic.
Nearly 200 unionized flight attendants with Southwest Airlines lined Cicero Avenue outside Midway International Airport Monday morning, holding signs slamming an airline they say is putting profit over workers. They chanted and cheered as drivers of passing trucks and cars honked in support.
Not long after that, over 100 United Airlines’ flight attendants gathered to do the same at O’Hare International Airport, holding signs and marching as passengers hurried past to check in for their flights.
The Southwest flight attendants are represented by Transportation Workers Union of America Local 556, while those with United are with the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA.
Local 556 has over 18,000 members nationwide with about 2,500 of them based in Chicago. Those participating in Tuesday’s protest were off duty.
Corliss King, a Southwest flight attendant and second vice president of Local 556, said they want management to engage in meaningful negotiations.
"Flight attendants are the face of Southwest Airlines; we touch every single passenger that comes through the doors of Southwest, and we should be recognized for our contribution to the bottom line," King said. "And I don’t believe that’s happening."
Her union’s demands include being paid for all the time they put in on a flight. Currently, attendants are not on the clock until the door of the plane is closed. They then go off the clock when the door opens after landing.
They also want more control over their schedules, and a better work-life balance. To do that, they want to end a policy requiring flight attendants to be on call, around the clock, for three days at a time.
King said this on-call policy at Southwest Airline is something not even firefighters or police officers are subjected to — and presents a clear danger to passengers.
"It’s very important to remember we’re safety professionals," King said. "The changes we are asking for are as much about safety to make sure our passengers are getting to where they’re supposed to go in a timely manner, and safely, but because they worked us 14 — or sometimes 16 hours — the night before, we aren’t getting the rest we need, or don’t even have a hotel room sometimes."
Which is why, King said, they want Southwest Airlines to provide appropriate sleeping and eating arrangements while on the job. Now, some flight attendants are forced to sleep at airports instead of hotels and struggle to find food during overnight travels, she said.
The union and Southwest have been in contract talks for the last five years. The old contract has run out, but remains in effect pending a new deal. But that doesn’t prevent the company from making some changes in the meantime, the union said.
Mediation is set to begin in November.
Southwest flight attendants also protested at nine other major airports across the country.
Chris Perry, a spokesperson for Southwest Airlines, said it will continue to negotiate with Local 556 in the mediation process and encourages its employees to "express their opinions."
"Informational picketing is common during contract negotiations, and we do not anticipate any disruption in service resulting from the demonstration by off-duty Flight Attendants," Perry said.
United Airlines flight attendants also picketed outside airports across the country demanding much of the same.
Scott Pejas, a United flight attendant and president of his AFA’s Chicago chapter, said United has operational issues that aren’t being addressed and are causing flight attendants to be on hold up to five hours awaiting an assignment — or a hotel room.
"The company is not working with the union to get these problems or issues resolved," Pejas said. "We just want the company to sit at the table and address these issues with us because they keep saying they are going to hire more manpower to get these issues resolved but the fact of the matter is we’re not seeing that."
Pejas said filling those workforce gaps is important as the airline industry prepares for the upcoming busy holiday season.
"We had over 110 schedulers prior to the pandemic, and we are nowhere near that number today even though our passenger loads have increased to pre-pandemic levels," Pejas said.
A spokesperson with United Airlines said it has "worked hard to reduce wait times for flight attendants" which includes more hirings.