DALLAS ( TheStreet) -- Now that flight attendants at American ( AMR) have asked to be released from mediation, the National Mediation Board will have to make a tough decision. Experts say that decision will likely be to deny the request, which the Association of Professional Flight Attendants
made on Tuesday. The union represents 16,550 active flight attendants at American. "They won't release them on the first pass," said aviation consultant Mike Boyd. "This kind of posturing needs to be done because when a labor union says it wants to be released, that sends a message to the company," he said. "But I would expect, at this point in time, with all the politics going on, that the NMB would try to avoid any labor disruption for now." Bill Swelbar, research engineer in MIT's International Center for Air Transportation, said it is too soon to release the flight attendants, particularly given that the Transport Workers Union asked for a release last week. It represents 28,000 American workers in various job classifications. "Everything I see and read would suggest that the flight attendants and the company are much further away from a deal than the TWU is," Swelbar said. "The NMB has to ask the question: 'Does it make sense to release this group, or is there another case where releasing them may facilitate a deal?'" At the moment, politics overshadow everything the NMB does, including the exercise of its primary responsibility, which is to promote labor stability in the crucial transportation sector. When newly elected President Obama exercised his right to appoint a new member to the NMB, whose three members must include one from the political party that is out of power, the board's composition changed from stridently pro-management to supposedly pro-labor. Since then, the board has been best known for agonizing over whether to change a Railway Labor Act provision requiring that when labor unions seek to organize, they must sign up a majority of the people eligible to vote, not just a majority of the people who vote. This peculiarity has been part of the law for 75 years, making it difficult to change. Under intense pressure from advocates on both sides, the NMB has retreated into a lockdown mode, providing no public indication of its thinking and virtually shutting out media.
The board cannot continue to hide, Swelbar says. The requests at American come as the number of transportation industry labor negotiations in mediation has reached an unprecedented peak, with more than 50 airline cases and about 30 railroad cases. "The time is unique, given the sheer number of cases, due to the convergence of amendable contract dates in the airline industry," he said. "We need to understand where the board's head is with respect to settling all these cases." A particular problem is that American's labor rates are among the industry's highest, a result of being one of two major network carriers that did not seek bankruptcy court protection between 2002 and 2005. Of the six network carriers, four filed during that period, using the process to reduce labor costs by billions of dollars. Only American and Continental ( CAL) did not file. Swelbar said the normal pattern for bargaining is for carriers with lower rates to negotiate first, with unions seeking compensation levels that exist at carriers with higher rates. Yet in the current round, American, which already has relatively high rates, is going first, with most other carriers in line to follow. That would seem to create an impediment for American unions to gain contract improvements. However, APFA attorney Rob Clayman took a different view during a media conference Wednesday. "What has to be looked at is not the current landscape, but what will the landscape look like after this round of negotiations," he said. "We're looking to elevate the flight attendants to a point where everyone else will follow suit." -- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C. .