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Southwest Airlines negotiations ‘have not been going productively,’ union president says

TWU Local 556 President Lyn Montgomery joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss workplace conditions for flight attendants at Southwest Airlines, technological failures, alcohol on planes, health benefits when workers are on injury leave, and where the union stands in its negotiations with the airline.

Video Transcript

DAVE BRIGGS: Southwest flight attendants are picketing across the country today as their union negotiates a new contract with the airline. For more on this story, we're joined by the president of that union, Lyn Montgomery, of the Transport Workers Union Local 556, which represents the airline's more than 18,000 flight attendants. Nice to see you. In a statement, you say, never before in the history of Southwest have working conditions deteriorated so rapidly. What changed for flight attendants in the last couple of years?

LYN MONTGOMERY: Well, the last couple of years have been extraordinarily difficult for flight attendants at Southwest Airlines. And actually, some of these issues existed even before the last couple of years, which I'll call the pandemic years. But we have had to work long, exhausting hours. We're having to sit on call 24/7 hours, which is causing some of our flight attendants to stay up 24 hours. We have been just the victims, along with our passengers, of horrific technological failures that have created chaos throughout our personal lives and our daily work schedules. And we're just really needing to see some changes.

SEANA SMITH: Lyn, what are some of those horrific technological failures that you just mentioned?

LYN MONTGOMERY: Yes, so the company has experienced technological breakdowns large enough to impact nationwide flights, nationwide, where flight attendants have been-- had to wait for hours on end just to find out what their next assignment was or when they would be going to a hotel or where their hotel was. I mean, we have reports of flight attendants having to wait three to four hours on hold with crew scheduling for their assignments and hotel reservations.

RACHELLE AKUFFO: And I understand there's been a number of delays during this negotiation process. How has that affected your ability to really negotiate?

LYN MONTGOMERY: Well, unfortunately, the negotiations have not been going productively or fruitfully. So we have filed for mediation and will be meeting with the mediator in November with the company and a federal mediator because we haven't found that the talks have been progressing at all.

DAVE BRIGGS: Specifically, what is the number one thing you and your fellow flight attendants need from Southwest at this moment?

LYN MONTGOMERY: Well, we really need Southwest Airlines to understand that we can't be saying sorry anymore with all these technological breakdowns. We need quality of life changes. And we need to be paid for all of our hours worked.

SEANA SMITH: In terms of the pay incentive there, obviously, a very critical part, a very important part of this contract that you're trying to negotiate with Southwest, I guess, more specifically, are you looking for an increase in terms of salaries for what you're already working, or just those additional hours?

LYN MONTGOMERY: Increase in pay is always something that's on the table. But we are actually looking for a lot of quality of life issues. When Southwest Airlines has these operational breakdowns or you are delayed because of weather, it's really having an impact on flight attendants' lives. And we're not seeing pay for that overtime that we have to put in if we have to stay a few hours or many hours after our shift or even working extra days. We're not actually seeing that pay as good as we should be seeing it.

RACHELLE AKUFFO: And what about some of the benefits that you're also looking at in terms of things like better health benefits?

LYN MONTGOMERY: Well, one of the most tragic things I think that can happen to a Southwest Airlines flight attendant is when she or he gets injured in the line of duty. You can actually lose your flight benefits while you're out on the job, injury leave. And that's just really despicable when you have been working in the line of duty, and you get injured. We also want to be able to see that flight attendants can retire. And we also want to see that if you are having a need to stay home with your children or need to breastfeed, that you're given the time to be able to do so without losing your health benefits.

DAVE BRIGGS: And just to be clear, you are not striking. Are you willing to strike? And one of the most recent changes in the last several months has been alcohol has returned to airplane flights. How has that changed working conditions for flight attendants?

LYN MONTGOMERY: Well, initially, when the alcohol returned, we were still under the mask mandate. And that was really the difficulty there because flight attendants were having to govern the wearing of the masks. And that really generated a hostility on board the aircraft, and flight attendants ended up having to be the victims of many assaults and aggressions from people who were upset that they were required to wear a mask.

SEANA SMITH: Lyn, what has the response from Southwest been? Have they been open to some of the changes that you and other flight attendants that you're representing want to make?

LYN MONTGOMERY: Southwest Airlines really doesn't want us to ask for as much change as we need to see. They've been asking us to narrow our scope. Unfortunately, the flight attendant's contract really hasn't changed significantly since 2009, but our operation has changed dramatically. So we really need to see a contract that steps up and stays in line with the operation that we have today.

RACHELLE AKUFFO: And so I want to ask you, obviously, about hiring. A lot of people seeing this news, seeing the moves coming from Southwest. What is this doing in terms of the new hire pipeline? How is the union addressing that?

LYN MONTGOMERY: So the company is hiring quite a lot. We actually meet with new hires while they're still in class. And we have a new hire committee where we reach out and talk to them. And I have to tell you, it's a little disheartening because many of the new hire flight attendants that are coming to Southwest Airlines are feeling the impact of the exhaustion after a long day because of the way that our duty days work and the way that we are scheduled. And they are quite surprised by that. And some are considering leaving.

RACHELLE AKUFFO: Goodness. Well, we certainly hope that's not the case. We thank you for what you are doing. Transportation Workers Union Local 556 President Lyn Montgomery.

Well, we reached out to Southwest for comment, and they had this to say. "Southwest Airlines has an award-winning culture that respects our employees and encourages them to express their opinions. Southwest looks forward to continuing negotiations with TWU 556 and the National Mediation Board so that we can reward our flight attendants and continue attracting great talent." We certainly hope there is a middle ground that can be reached there.