Explainer

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?

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.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

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.

Next question?

Explainer thanks Professor Kate Bronfenbrenner of Cornell Law School.

Advertisement