Flight attendants at JetBlue Airways, one of the few groups of unorganized flight attendants at a major airline, have voted to join the Transport Workers Union of America, the union announced Tuesday.
The vast majority of the airline’s 5,000 flight attendants participated in the vote, and 66 percent of them voted to join the TWU.
The biggest issues for the flight attendants, including 1,300 based in Boston, are wages and benefits, the need for a due process procedure for disciplinary actions, and job security in the event of a merger or an acquisition, said John Samuelsen, president of the TWU, which represents more than 140,000 workers, including flight attendants for Southwest Airlines and Allegiant Air.
“It’s a big day for the labor movement,” said Samuelsen, who previously noted that the JetBlue flight attendants’ campaign is the biggest in the airline industry in decades. “In one fell swoop, they’re going to go from powerless to powerful.”
New York-based JetBlue, the largest carrier at Logan Airport in terms of flights and passenger numbers, said in a statement: “While we respect the outcome of the election, we are disappointed in this result because we believe the direct relationship is superior to third-party representation. Our crewmembers remain at the heart of the JetBlue experience and we value all they do to provide that experience to our customers.”
JetBlue, which started flying in 2000, had no unionized workers until 2014, when its pilots organized with the Air Line Pilots Association. The flight attendant vote took place electronically — online and over the phone — over the course of a month, and was overseen by the National Mediation Board.
Lyndi Howard of Sandwich, who has been a JetBlue flight attendant for 13 years, wants the union to address the airline’s ability to fire workers at will. JetBlue’s current attendance policy, which has become more punitive in recent years, Howard said, assesses points each time an employee takes sick or vacation days, and they are “dinged double points” for calling in sick during holidays and storms. When workers rack up enough points, they are terminated, Howard said, including a flight attendant who took time off to take college exams and was fired last week.
“It has created a culture of fear,” she said. “People come to work sick constantly, which is bad for the passengers and bad for the crew members.”
JetBlue is part of a lawsuit filed by an airline industry group against Massachusetts over the state’s paid sick time law. Airlines for America said the law is unconstitutional and shouldn’t apply to airlines because much of the work done by locally based flight crews takes place outside the state, in federally regulated airspace.
The Massachusetts law prohibits employers from disciplining workers for sick-leave absences.
JetBlue’s harsh disciplinary policies also affect the reporting of safety concerns, the union says. In 2015, a Boston-based flight attendant said she was fired after she stepped off a plane onto the jetway to call her supervisor when a passenger reported that she had seen the pilots drinking at a bar before the flight. Last month, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which evaluates whistleblower complaints, ordered JetBlue to reinstate the flight attendant, clear her file, and pay her back wages.
JetBlue said the flight attendant was fired in part for violating a safety rule, not for raising a safety concern. But the OSHA investigation found that her whistleblower activity contributed to the termination. JetBlue is appealing the order.