Did Labor Action Over Vaccine Mandates Compel Southwest to Cancel Thousands of Flights?

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

Betteridge would be pleased; from the evidence we have, the answer is no. Let’s start with what we know. From The Points Guy, “Southwest suffers operational meltdown as hundreds upon hundreds of flights canceled or delayed“:

Southwest Airlines is suffering an operational meltdown this weekend as hundreds upon hundreds of flights have been delayed or canceled outright. The airline is blaming weather and an air traffic control issue from Friday for the domino effect of cancellations.

Thousands of passengers have been stranded at airports, been forced to wait in long lines, or spent hours on hold trying to rebook their flights.

Flight tracking company Flight Aware is reporting 27% of Sunday’s flights have already been canceled as of around 8 a.m. The airline had said that things might improve today, but so far it’s actually gotten a bit worse. According to Flight Aware, Saturday saw some 800 cancellations. Sunday morning it’s worse with more than 1,000 flights canceled.

Seemingly driven by Twitter, right wing figure Alex Berenson (200,000 Twitter followers before he was banned) wrote “The revolt begins – at Southwest Airlines“:

Pilots at Southwest appear to be sicking out in a rebellion against vaccine mandates that has crippled the airline since Friday.

So, a pilot work stoppage at Southwest? After a few hours, Berenson’s claim leaped the Blue-Red barrier to #Resistance and #BLM figure Brooklyn Dad Defiant (918.4K followers), who tweeted:

Well. Obviously, I have priors on this story: I think the workers at the chokepoints in the supply chain (here, pilots, air traffic controllers, flight attendants, and ground personnel, for starters) have an enormous among of political power, should they decide to wield it to together. (See Kim Kelly’s On New Terrain.) So the possibility of a pilot work stoppage at Southwest pressed several of my buttons, and I immediately checked some labor accounts — Kim Kelly, Payday Report, Labor Notes, More Perfect Union, Strike Wave — to see what they had to say. Not a whisper. That tells me that it’s most likely that Berenson and Brooklyn Dad Defiant have hair trigger trouble on this story (although, speculating, for different reasons: Berenson from anti-vax, er, resistance sentiment; Brooklyn Dad from pro-vax tribalism plus hatred of unions). Also, if indeed there is a work stoppage, no spokespersons have emerged, or open letters issued, which strikes me as odd.

Be that as it may, let’s run down the remainder of the story. First, it has to be said that Southwest’s public relations effort was especially clumsy. Here it is:

Ticked off passengers immediately responded that both weather and ATC issues would apply to all airlines, not just Southwest:

And indeed from FlightAware, 1007 (27%) of Southwest flights were cancelled. The next highest U.S. airline, American, cancelled 63 (2%). So it does look like there’s something unique to Southwest, and it’s reasonable to speculate that labor issues are that thing. As NBC points out:

The disparity between Southwest’s operation and other airlines fueled speculation on social media that employees were calling out sick.

But at this point, speculation is all that we have.

Next, let’s turn to potential supply chain chokepoints. In this story, we have two: pilots (fingered by Berenson and Defiant) and air traffic controllers. (There is no chatter about flight attendants or ground crews.) Starting with the pilots, here is a press release from Southwest’s house pilot’s union, SWAPA:

SWAPA is aware of operational difficulties affecting Southwest Airlines today due to a number of issues, but we can say with confidence that our Pilots are not participating in any official or unofficial job actions.

Note that SWAPA is constrained in this matter by Federal law. From the Dallas Morning News:

Pilots are prohibited by federal law from organizing a full strike that includes withholding labor.

(To give credit to SWAPA, they are contemplating authorizing picketing in the fourth quarter over working conditions. SWAPA has also filed suit against vaccine mandates. But neither of those are work stoppage.)

And now, the air traffic controllers. On the Twitter (although not for Berenson or Defiant) this is the alternate theory of the case involving a work stoppage:

(PointsGuy gives this credence by quoting it.) The account is an anchor at NewsNation, Nexstar’s national cable station. A reporter at NewsNation writes:

However, aviation and airline sources tell NewsNation that the ATC issues causing the cancellation of nearly 1,000 Southwest Airlines flights were actually caused by a huge number of air controllers calling in sick at the Jacksonville Air Route Traffic Control Center.

The Jacksonville Control Center is one of the nation’s largest air traffic control centers that handle flights going to and from Florida. The sources also reported that the “sick out” relates to low morale and anger over vaccine mandates.

I think that’s thinly sourced (and verbiage like “huge number” doesn’t give me confidence. There are approximately 200 controllers at the station; I don’t know how many are on duty at the same time).

I’m having a hard time understanding why only SouthWest would be affected by ATC issues at Jacksonville, however. Here is local reporter trying to run the story down:

And here is the current state of play:

Finally, here’s the case for the defense of the air traffic controllers from the Airliners.net forum:

Everything people are hearing about a “walkout” at ZJX or whatever is nothing more than rumors and simply not true. On Friday ZJX experienced a very difficult day due to many factors, some of which were mentioned above. Staffing has been low around the country, some facilities worse than others. There was significant weather that moved from northern central FL to the east shutting off east coast routes. A major military exercise was also occurring and during this event ZJX gives away nearly half of its airspace significantly increasing complexity. ZJX often gets backlash from the command center on route structure and ground delay programs, so the facility was forced to take whatever measures they could on their own to manage the issue and even then some of the sectors west of the weather were heavily overloaded with no relieving controllers. People don’t typically think of Jacksonville Center when it comes to busy facilities, but it is without a doubt one of the most constrained facilities due to geography and military airspace, it works more volume than most level 12 facilities, and deals with the most significant weather.

(I can’t verify the trnsworld account, but they did join 22 years ago, long enough for a forum to sort out a troll.)

* * *

So that is where we are: Labor action over vaccine mandates by Southwest pilots highly unlikely; labor action over vaccine mandates by air traffic controllers possible, but lacking in evidence.

Perhaps if some newsgathering organization — say, a reporter at NewsNation? — could quote some actual workers, that would bring some clarity to the situation.[1]


[1] There is, of course, the reality that our press and the liberal Democrat fraction of the political class declared a state of exception with Trump’s election in 2016, which continued through, say, the disappeared story of Hunter Biden’s laptop. They could simply be suppressing the story. From what I read, it’s ordinary corporate and government officialdom profit-seeking and grubbiness, not censorship. NewsNation did run the story, after all, even if they did muff it.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Carolinian

    Well I’m not in Florida but there was a huge amount of rain Friday morning. We have Southwest service here. And yes Berenson is a bit of a flake. The other day he praised Merck as a drug company you could rely on despite Vioxx.

    But perhaps we should talk about that Southwest Pilots’ lawsuit. They claim the side effects from the now banned in Iceland vax (moderna) could cause complications that would cause them to flunk their regular pilot physicals and thereby lose their license and their career. Southwest says that because they do business with the USG they have no choice but to follow the dictates of the Biden administration. The pilots are asking for a stay so a judge can decide.

    And just because they say they aren’t walking out doesn’t mean they aren’t accidentally on purpose walking out.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > And just because they say they aren’t walking out doesn’t mean they aren’t accidentally on purpose walking out.

      I think that responding “There’s no evidence” when I show that there’s no evidence isn’t as strong a rejoinder as you think it is.

      In such a case, I would expect something, as I said in the post. An open letter, a spokesperson, an anonymous interview, an actual worker interviewed, even anonymously, by a NewsNation reporter.

      As for Berenson, I wouldn’t mind if he were a flake; who among us? But he’s outright making sh*t up, so far as I can tell.

      On the lawsuit, your attempt to threadjack is noted.

        1. Lambert Strether Post author

          No harm, no foul.

          Speculate on the nature of the strike, which if it is indeed is an “emergent strike” (see below) is an extraordinary event. (That’s why I was a little curt, for which I apologize; I didn’t want discussion of such an extraordinary event sidelined.)

          1. Scott 2

            I personally would prefer one unvaccinated pilot in the cockpit, just in case. I mean if Sudafed is the strongest medicine a pilot can take before flying why are we not concerned about high clotting factors?

            1. Joe Well

              And yet you’re not concerned about a pilot being affected by COVID 19, whose symptoms can progress rapidly.

    2. Gc54

      I was under the impression that there are no legally binding vaccine mandates from the Feds, just “guidelines” from OSHA for companies to follow if they want.

      1. d w

        well it seems that there are for government employees. and federal contractors employees too
        and that last one is likely to be because if the government employees have to be, then allowing contractor employees to skip that, but the government employees, and make a hazardous work place

        while some one can just decide to not vaccinate, they will be fired if they dont. at will employment does that.

        course does any employee really want to be the cause of a passenger (or customers) death? and does any business want to be on the hook for that? and i know at one time some one was pushing for a liability waiver? course that would make passengers and customers avoid any business that got that waiver. might have been the reason it never got passed and signed into law.

      2. Sue inSoCal

        Brunches and Glen, you’re both correct. (Brunches I hope you’re recovering.) WashDOT made the ferries part of the highway system in the 50s, iirc. Funding them didn’t work. Plenty of $$ for freeways and…the tunnel. (Recall the wildly expensive Japanese boring machine that got stuck?) Sailings were continually cut over the years, and the boats are in awful shape. By the time I left (using the ferry system for transit) several years ago there were constantly cancelled sailings, breakdowns, etc. But I digress.. (Forgive me Lambert. You can edit this out if I’m on Pluto. I just rarely run into people who even know these facts, much less who Tim Eyeman is!)

        I do want to comment on pilots as well as truck drivers from a wage perspective. I’ve known two pilots- one young and one old, same airline. Like many industries, it seems to me that the pilots/airlines ate their young in negotiations. The old pilot’s retirement and family benefits were unimaginably gold plated. In the mid 70s, old pilot earned 50k/yr, lavish layovers, huge family benefits to this day. Fast forward to the 90s. (See industry salaries.) Young pilot had to stand in line at the counter with his kids to get tickets like everyone else. Those lavish benefits were watered down. New pilots (and even truckers, whose wages have stagnated and have few if any benefits) may be willing to vaccinate as old guys, like in Slim’s video, retire. (I’m not pro or con vax.) The other issue is flight attendants have had it with craziness. Anyone know if there’s a shortage there?
        Finally, I’m livid with airlines refusing to refund tickets, pay for rooms and say ta ta when flights are canceled. I remember the old days when it was their responsibility, regardless of reason for cancellation.



  2. Nikkikat

    If the reason is the mandate, I applaud them for taking action. I am vaxxed but, no one should be forced to do it. Glad to see people push back.

    1. d w

      in a way i dont care, but then how does management deal with those who have been, but dont work with those that arent? while the vaccine does work, it can be overwhelmed by one individual because the latest variation is so contagious. so i suppose you could end up with a permanent division of employees some at work place, others not. and in some cases they cant even do the job from home (pilot being an example). and being in a very tight enclosed location (an airplane) with 100+ others who you dont know at all. why wouldnt you want to be vaccinated? and why would passengers want to be on such a plane?

    2. Mike Elwin

      I so tired of that personal choice BS. How massively selfish. No one should be forced to drive on the right, I suppose, but they darn well better, for their sake and ours.

  3. Adam1

    You post intrigued me so I did some googling…. A couple items of note I came across… Southwest has had multiple boughts of mass cancelations recently. Mid June, end of June and it looks likes in early August. Most get initially PR’ed as weather related, but in many cases it eventually comes out as at most weather related or triggered but really driven by either labor shortages or IT problems. It appears quite public that SW is having its worst labor shortage ever. And per SW they are spread even thinner as they are flying more routes across a wider geography than before the pandemic. This must increase their vulnerability to a cascade if anything causes them problems in their network.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > This must increase their vulnerability to a cascade

      Absolutely. But “Did Southwest fall, or was it pushed?” (pushed by workers, I mean, not by management inepitude).

      1. d w

        well, usually management ineptitude tends to be the vast majority of company failures. course it could be a supplier (like maybe a supplier of fuel for example?). which does make wonder why it is that employees tend to bear the brunt of all failures? even if they had nothing to do with the failure,

      2. Adam1

        As I suspected it would only be with time before more details came out. SW as far as I know is still blaming it on weather and ATC problems, but it’s looking more like that was the push and management ineptitude in network design has lead to the run away cascade of cancellations. From the pilot union…


        “Squarely on Southwest, I point to how they manage the network and how their I.T. also supports that network. Once a little hiccup occurs due to the internal processes, our pilots aren’t getting to where they need to be. We’ve been sounding this alarm for about four years and have seen very little approach to correcting it,” Murray said.

  4. T_Reg

    “A major military exercise was also occurring”. I wonder how often that is happening. This is the first time I have seen that stated as a contributing cause to an air traffic jam.

    1. Cocomaan

      Not the first time I’ve seen that. I was booked on a flight into Philly from CO once that was cancelled due to “weather.”

      Later, a VIPs arrival (POTUS) was speculated to be the reason. He was coming into town and they cleared everyone else out.

      1. Peter

        Our (Dutch) Prime Minister arrives at work by bicycle. Maybe some security detail bike alongside him. No ordinary person’s life is disrupted…..

  5. Cocomaan

    The lack of investigation by major media players (beyond shit stories repeating press releases) has a hermeneutic value: when the mainstream media doesn’t do any investigation, that’s where the coolest, most interesting story is.

    Vaccine breakthroughs. Jeff Epstein and ghislaine maxwells. Iraq war WMDs. Real estate bubble. Russia gate. Origins of covid. Super interesting stories that seem totally uninteresting to our press.

    Instead we get a Yahoo news story republishing press releases.

    Credit to my wife who said what Lambert says in his last paragraph almost verbatim this afternoon

    1. JBird4049

      Do an original story, any store for a news station might take three people: reporter, camera, and sound. Doing a three minute clip for the evening news on a dog show might take several hours. Half a day, max. Doing series on the corruption, on say the city (or the county) of Los Angeles, which is probably more corrupt than already corrupt San Francisco, and has been for decades, might take several people each for reporting, camera, sound, plus editors, and maybe more. Media van, perhaps. With the crew being used primarily on just that story over several weeks, even months.

      Quick and cheap, fluffy, feel good story that offends nobody, but still gets the viewership needed for advertising revenue or an expensive, important story that enrages the local government, what with their laws, police, lawyers, lobbyists, political allies, powerful personal friends, maybe the local power-brokers? Including those in Hollywood or in Sacramento? Or worse, their federal friends? The more corrupt the country has become, the more vertically integrated and concentrated the power structure has become as well. That and the fewer checks on using that power.

      The more the media becomes tamed and concentrated, the more vulnerable what remains is as well as harder it is to do work.

  6. VietnamVet

    These are interesting times. There are just too many coincidences to be unrelated.

    First, Neoliberalism never tells the truth. Its whole ideology is all about messaging to make more money. Public Health is heresy to it. Western governments are unable to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. mRNA Vaccines are too leaky to make vaccine mandates and passports practical. Yet they are being pushed onto workers. The big lie propaganda is not going unnoticed.

    Second, Pilots are very conscious of their yearly physicals. Failing means no flying, no job. If the proven heart inflammation and blood clotting side effects of mRNA vaccines have impacted any pilots, it would spread like wildfire.

    Third, West Coast ports have opened to 24 hours a day, but this has not moved the containers off the ships anchored offshore. There are not enough truck drivers, longshoremen or train crews available.

    Fourth, Washington Post’s headline; “America’s unemployed are sending a message: They’ll go back to work when they feel safe – and well-compensated”. “Fewer people, especially women, were looking for work as they continued to struggle with child care and schooling uncertainty.”

    Fifth, India and China are suffering coal shortages and running blackouts. UK has gas lines. Angela Merkle blamed the huge spike in energy prices on the EU natural gas spot market. Enron blackouts are coming to the whole world. Last winter’s Texas Freeze is inevitable anywhere natural gas/electricity is deregulated and a polar vortex settles in for a long stay-over.

    Southwest Airlines cancellations are likely a wave in the perfect storm that is engulfing the West.

    1. JBird4049

      Enron’s blackouts were fun. Listening to the radio while commute wondering if it’s your building’s turn on the rolling blackout express. Those blackouts, however, were deliberately created by Enron for their profit with the rolling part an effort by California to more equally spread the pain as well as protect the hospitals, fire departments, and police, in that order.

      Besides showing neoliberalism’s hollowing out all extra capacity and therefore flexibility for profit, are there any examples of the current shortages being deliberate? Not that I would be surprised. I would be shocked if there was not.

      Also, since single payer healthcare for all as well as the minimum wage matching both the rise in inflation and productivity, which it did until about 1970, and would make the current rate at $25 per hour, I do not see this shortage in workers ending soon. Too much screaming about inflation and the greatest healthcare in the world, or something.

      Actually, with full healthcare and at $52,000 per year, you could almost afford to live in much of California as a single person. Not in Silicon Valley or San Francisco, mind you, but it would be doable elsewhere. Maybe if you were willing to live in the Tenderloin, you might even swing San Francisco.

      And I am more amazed every year that my parents managed to rent a house with a yard in San Jose albeit with difficulty back when on essentially the minimum wage. Granted, not the best house in the poor part of town, but still.

      Today. No healthcare, really. Wages cut in half at least in the past fifty years. Underfunded disability that is almost impossible to get, and a retirement that is little more than starvation in a room. Why the surprise with Covid? Both the disease and the vaccines can cripple you. It looks like just luck on whether you live, die, or a crippled. All so you can be worked to death.

      Who would want to work? The grey or even the black market is probably growing very well.

      1. d w

        that and why would you want to work for a company that didnt protect you from coworkers (or customers) that can actually kill you, or make you very very sick?
        now as a side note, some times employees just decide its not worth it any more, for reasons like the mask mandates (or lack of) is from above, but some times some of its how they treated their employees (that sort of stuff gets out no matter how they try to cover it up). plus then there are all of those buildings that companies have, that cost a lot, and get worse when there are employees in them, and while they could close some permanently, and make those who remain move to other locations on their own dime (seems that a tax bill removed companies ability to claim a tax credit for moving employees). so is any one really surprised that beat up employees arent rushing back to work?

    2. jsn

      Excellent list! So, it may not be an “emergent” labor action. It is, however, an “emergent” structural failure.

      Having shifted risks and costs onto those least able to afford it for 40 years, the system, at least on paper, had externalized all the costs, as long as everything worked.

      One thing broke and it’s breaking everything else, starting with those things that have been deliberately weakened, for instance, labor.

  7. Arakawa

    I think the strangest outcome would be if the Southwest employees were inspired to stage a sickout after reading the online rumours that the recent bout of flight cancellations was caused by a sickout. If that happened, I think it would be the first time in history that the media managed to Streisand effect a story out of no-being.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > I think it would be the first time in history that the media managed to Streisand effect a story out of no-being.

      I don’t think this can be completely ruled out.

    2. Joe Well

      Isn’t that what many psychologists accused the media of doing with regards to mass shooters? Also in giving oxygen to so many astroturf movements like the Tea Party.

  8. Badbisco

    Not official evidence but just asked a close friend who used to work at SW for over 20 years. They texted their former SW union rep (non-pilot union) and they responded that they have >600 flight attendants without hotel rooms tonight due to the unexpected cancellations. They say the story/reasons they are given for the cancellations are constantly changing but they personally think it is a pilot sick out. They may be wrong but non-pilot SW employees think that’s what’s going on.

  9. rowlf

    The linked Bloomberg SWAPA article above is good at explaining SWAPA’s argument that the airline enforcing the vaccine mandate unlawfully imposes new conditions of employment and is a modification of the parties’ collective bargaining agreement in violation of the Railway Labor Act. I wonder what other airlines did to keep their pilots (and other unions) calm and not file lawsuits? (It is possible the media did not report other RLA lawsuits and Southwest was just too big of a lump under the carpet.)

    1. d w

      while i suppose that the union might win, but the the airlines might fail from lack of passengers huh? seems like the majority of Americans (like %70+) are on board with the mandate. if a company decides to not follow that, they may not have any passengers

      and that vaccine mandate seems to be for all US carriers so far

  10. The Rev Kev

    As to why this airline and why now, an RT article mentions that-

    ‘SouthWest Airlines became one of the last major US air carriers to introduce a vaccine mandate for its employees last Monday after the company was reportedly pressured by White House coronavirus adviser Jeffrey Zients to comply with President Joe Biden’s vaccination order. Some 56,000 SouthWest employees have until December 8 to get vaccinated if they want to keep their jobs.’


  11. djrichard

    Strange times when a labor walkout (putative) has the Dems as the antagonistic party and the GoP as the sympathetic party.

  12. jwillie

    Berenson Sunday night:

    A Southwest Airlines pilot explains why you will not hear anything about vaccine mandates from his union – and why Southwest has more flexibility than it admits to stand up to the White House

    The pilot emailed following the first Southwest post today (and provided his SWA ID to prove his identity). He asked that I paraphrase the email.

    Essentially, the union cannot organize or even acknowledge the sickout, because doing so would make it an illegal job action. Years ago, Southwest and its pilots had a rough negotiation, and the union would not even let the pilots internally discuss the possibility of working-to-rule (which would have slowed Southwest to a crawl).

    But at the moment the pilots don’t even have to talk to each other about what they’re doing. The anger internally – not just among pilots but other Southwest workers – is enormous. The tough prior negotiations notwithstanding, Southwest has a history of decent labor relations, and workers believe the company should stand up for them against the mandate. Telling pilots in particular to comply or face termination has backfired.

    Meanwhile, Southwest has more flexibility than it has acknowledged. Federal contracts represent about 3 percent of its revenue, but even the Biden administration CANNOT alter existing contracts (please note, I have not checked this, though it seems reasonable); Southwest is only at risk of losing future contracts.

    This pilot believes that the fact that the airlines received $25 billion in no-strings-attached cash for “payroll support” last year (as well another $25 billion in loans) has made them particularly reluctant to stand up to the Biden administration. Southwest’s CEO, Gary Kelly, may be in an especially tough spot since he is the head of the airline lobbying group.

    Finally: This pilot says he loves Southwest and finds the crisis painful but feels that if this is the only way Americans can stand up to these mandates, then let the chips fall.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Here is the link to Berenson.

      If indeed there is what I would call an “emergent strike” — that is, a strike emerging simultaneously from the shared consciousness of a workforce, without prior planning or organization — that would be an extraordinary event. I am not a labor history maven, but I can’t recall a similar event. As I hope my introduction made clear, nobody would be happier than I would be if this story turned out to be true,

      However, that an “emergent strike” is happening is an extraordinary claim. Therefore, it requires extraordinary evidence. I don’t regard a single-sourced, paraphrased (!) email meeting that evidentiary standard.

      Now, if a Southwest pilot wants to get in touch with Naked Capitalism for an interview, we are easy to get in touch with, and we can provide ironclad assurances that their identity would remain sacrosanct, based on past performance.

      Readers, work your contact list!

      1. ChrisFromGeorgia

        I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere with this story because of this key statement:

        Pilots are prohibited by federal law from organizing a full strike that includes withholding labor.

        If that is true, and I ain’t a lawyer and can’t say whether it really applies, so just assuming it is, then it makes sense that no “spokesperson” or organizer for the strike would come forward, as they’d be putting themselves in legal jeopardy.

        We’re left with “you can’t prove a negative” i.e we cannot prove it isn’t a “wildcat” strike, and we cannot prove that it is.

        Seems awfully suspicious though that “weather” only affects one of the big three.

        1. Lambert Strether Post author

          > Pilots are prohibited by federal law from organizing a full strike that includes withholding labor.

          I think an anonymous interview, if not of a pilot, pilot-adjacent, would do it.

          I so wanted this story to be true and clean; the original headline was not a question! But as I researched, all I found was a Twitter echo chamber. “My friend says that a ticket agent said….” Not good enough for NC…

      2. Left in Wisconsin

        I am not a labor history maven, but I can’t recall a similar event.

        There are several (many?) cases from the first half of the 20th century of white working men laying down tools in protest of having to work alongside women or black people. It’s not a perfect parallel (and this is not my area so I would defer to a real expert) but my understanding is that these “emergent” strikes were often putatively for other reasons, but that participants (and management) knew the real reasons.

        Worker dignity is a universal concept but how it manifests in particular circumstances is often locally specific. Today, for some, vaccine mandates appear to be a serious attack on their human dignity.

  13. Brunches with Cats

    > Perhaps if some newsgathering organization — say, a reporter at NewsNation? — could quote some actual workers, that would bring some clarity to the situation.

    If that’s the only acceptable evidence, odds are 99.9-to-.1 against finding anything close to “proof.”

    Washington State Ferries is in a similar situation. Ferry workers are employed by the state and per union contract are not allowed to strike. Anyone participating in a sickout would be subject to discipline, and you don’t rat on your union brothers and sisters. They’re certainly not going to announce it on Twitter or Facebook. And they would make darn sure not to even hint of it to their management liaisons. BTW, one shouldn’t assume that the only employees protesting are the non-vaxxed. Washington DOT management has been so stupidly clueless that they’ve managed to piss off even workers who were vaccinated well before the mandate.

    If Southwest’s union contracts are as byzantine as those of the ferries,’ there are many ways one could legitimately participate in a sickout without breaking the rules. For example, say someone calls in sick, and a backup is called to take their place. At least one of the ferry crew contracts that I know of specifies that union members aren’t obligated to take overtime. Or, suppose an employee has been in close contact with someone who just tested positive, and is quarantining at home. Again, using Washington ferries as an example, management tells them to come in anyway (this actually happened to someone I know), but they can refuse on the grounds of “keeping everyone safe,” without violating their union agreement. Even if there was a mass coordinated effort to use legitimate excuses such as these, union spokespersons could truthfully say there was no sickout.

    1. Glen

      One local WA news story mentioned how many people were out sick the day the WSF system cancelled over 150 runs: 13 people.

      The WSF system has been underfunded since the Tim Eyman tax cuts nailed it years ago. They no longer hire sufficient backup crew, and no longer offer good pay or benefits. I’m not even going to pass along the stories one hears about the state of the boats. And the state only took over the system after the company that was running it had collapsed.

      1. Brunches with Cats

        Thanks, Glen, for mentioning the additional factors. I meant to do so and am mortified that I made it sound like it was all the employees’ fault, which in fact is what management is trying to do in order to avoid responsibility for their own F-ups. Not only are they trying to pit employees against one another, but also passengers against crew. As a result (as with Southwest), many stranded passengers are blaming the “COVIDiot” workers too selfish to get vaxxed for the public good. All I can say for my failure is that I just spent a harrowing two days in the hospital (first 17 hours in the ER), and at midnight the day after coming home should have been asleep, not commenting on NC. Just can’t stay away…

        You are correct that WSF was having problems with vessels and crew long before the pandemic. My only quibble is with “it’s all Eyman’s fault” — another management attempt to deflect from their pitiful record. I was involved with my local Ferry Community Partnership committee at that time and saw how WSF (mis)management squandered the money they did have; e.g., on consultants with close connections to upper-level execs. I also got to know crew in the three marine unions. They’ve continually raised alarms about the state of the vessels and crewing issues — all systemically ignored by management. The state buyout to which you’re referring happened in the early 1950s — plenty of time for the state to get its act together if it had wanted to.

        P.S. I came home to some news from contacts, which I will attempt to put in a more coherent and complete form as soon as I’m able.

          1. Badbisco

            The law against a strike means they can’t have an official action and subsequent negotiation. This is a binary on/off situation not a back and forth for $2k versus $5k in salary. If this is a sickout and continues, the execs will know what is being demanded. 10% of flights cancelled and 39% delayed today per FlightAware. FreedomFlu trending on Twitter.

  14. voteforno6

    If they’re staging a sickout, I highly doubt that it’s due to the vaccine mandate. My guess is the people pumping that angle want it to be true.

    We haven’t seen any comparable action in any other industry, and I don’t see why the pilots for Southwest would be any different. The walkouts that we’re seeing are over much more basic issues, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the case here, if in fact it is a sickout.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > If they’re staging a sickout, I highly doubt that it’s due to the vaccine mandate. My guess is the people pumping that angle want it to be true.

      Yes, the conservatives had hair trigger trouble twice: First, that we were seeing a strike. Second, that it was about vaccines.

      They pulled the yarn too tight in their diagram, and so the diagram warped and tore.

    2. Jeremy Stratford

      >We haven’t seen any comparable action in any other industry, and I don’t see why the pilots for Southwest would be any different.

      Southwest announced their vaccine mandates a week ago. That’s what makes them different. The mandates are clearly the cause of the sickout.

  15. Eric377

    Seems clear was SWA specifically, so hard to see control or weather as primary causes. Their customer services were pretty overwhelmed by the volume, but they made progress all day is what I heard. Probably not IT. Prime suspect would be flight crews. Why, I have no idea.

  16. voislav

    From anecdotal evidence I’ve seen from reddit it’s crew shortages, both cabin crew and flight crew. Someone also mentioned that Southwest blames the weather because their tickets have a weather clause where they don’t have to refund a ticket if the flight is cancelled due to weather. So weather excuse is just a legal thing to avoid having to refund the customers.

    1. Ben

      In June SW caused my family to get to next city over a day late blaming weather. Then my son saw the woman that helped us at the counter loading baggage. Anecdotal, but my assumption is that they are short staffed and the lack of agreements with other airlines is exacerbating that. Weather being blamed saved them from paying for the hotel.

  17. Hank George

    No company or government has the right to force anyone to be injected against their will.

    I accept the argument that there could be an out-of-control acute pathogen that posed a huge immediate health risk that would justify an exception but that is obviously not an issue here.

    To make matters even more bizarre, persons who’ve had Covid-19 and fully recovered have greater protection against reinfection than those who get these “vaccines”. Despite this, companies and our government want to compel them to get a jab that CDC data shows is directly responsible for a minimum of 20,000 deaths here (and similar number in reporting EU countries)!

    If I were a pilot, I would do exactly what these men and women are doing. Refuse and stay home until the company relents

    1. Objective Ace

      > get a jab that CDC data shows is directly responsible for a minimum of 20,000 deaths here

      Do you have a source for this?

    2. d w

      unfortunately they can, since most states have employment at will, it means short of violating some legal prohibition, they can do just that. at will means they can fire for any cause. and they do
      today most layoffs are firings. and if they stay home, they are risking being fired. and that isnt forbidden for companies to do.
      is their objective proof that having survived covid has a stronger protection? and how long does it last? and what version of covid protects against any and all variations to date? and in the future?

  18. Barry Winograd

    Mass wildcat protest actions spanning multiple locations, which take place in breach of bargaining agreements and over union objections, always leave evidence of what is taking place. That’s not happening here. Still doubtful? Labor-management agreements to implement vaccine mandates for pilots and other employees for United and American have been put in place without evidence of widespread refusals or flight disruptions on anything near a comparable scale. For the cause(s) of SWA’s huge operational problems, we need to look elsewhere.

    1. Brunches with Cats

      > Labor-management agreements to implement vaccine mandates for pilots and other employees for United and American have been put in place without evidence of widespread refusals or flight disruptions on anything near a comparable scale.

      Again, using Washington ferries as a parallel, since I have no insight whatsoever into Southwest’s situation:

      Reps for the three marine unions negotiated an agreement with the state (a.k.a., “management”) for implementing the governor’s no-testing vax mandate, signed on Sept. 7 without running it past rank-and-file first. The union reps for the past few years apparently see their job as selling management’s position to membership and, if that fails, making excuses, obfuscating, and obstructing. In other words, they’ve sold out their union brothers and sisters. To wit: On Sept. 8, WSDOT (parent agency of the ferries), sent out an agency wide memo with requirements for verifying vaccination status using a third-party vendor that risks compromise of personal and medical information, in conflict with the union MOU. Protests by membership were met with responses from reps (paraphrasing), “We’ve taken your concerns to management and they have been addressed.” Period. Then further memos from the state that the verification system was perfectly safe, blahblahblah.

      In the meantime, there have been no direct “refusals” to get vaxxed or to use the required verification app. As Yves said in her post on mandates, why would anyone tip their hand before the deadline?

      HOWEVER, it’s also true that the current disruptions in ferry service — HUGE as of last Friday — are not even remotely all due to any crew sickout, if indeed there is one. There are other legitimate reasons for absent crew; e.g., vacation, days off for excessive overtime, workers who have tested positive or have been exposed, etc. That’s on top of vessels down for repair, traffic backing up due to delayed or canceled sailings, which throws off the entire schedule (and if crew are forced to remain on watch past a specified amount of OT per bargaining agreement, they get the following day off with pay), and other issues not related to crew. I’ve also heard two or three anecdotes about schedulers supposedly “working” from home but being so out of it that they don’t even know which boats are delayed or have been tied up due to lack of crew, and aren’t calling for backup in time.

      Thing is, when you have crew shortages and vessel maintenance issues to start with — very clearly management failures — even a few workers protesting via a sickout can cripple the system. Bottom line, it’s not an either-or situation, but “all of the above.”

  19. bob

    I’m flying southwest today out of FL. First flight was supposed to depart at 7am. After watching lots of crew mill around the hatch, we finally left about 20 minutes late. Everyone was on the plane. The pilot on the way into the cabin said there was “lots of paperwork”. Maybe a slowdown?

    All in all I would never fly southwest again. Horrible experience, before the problems over the weekend. Packed in like sardines after lining up like cattle to try to get a seat where the passengers in the seats next to it would allow you to be seated. Crew were all very nice, but seemed to be dealing with trouble from above them.

    I got no indication at all the vaccine had anythign to do with anything.

    1. d w

      sounds like SWA is no different than any other airline, passengers are packed in as tight as they can (there were noises that one of the seat makers was going to propose that passengers stand to allow even more tighter packing of passengers

      so far no airline seems to be interested in it, yet…….so far

      what you described is more like flight management, and maybe some one added a check to see if the crew is vaccinated…and its really slow going to get that done?

      1. FriarTuck

        I was on a SWA flight from Denver/DEN to Chicago/MDW on Saturday, and a woman ahead of me in the TSA line nearly melted down when she found out her flight was cancelled. She was flying to Arizona to visit her sister for her birthday party and apparently had used the majority of her available personal time to do so.

        Both my departure earlier that week and that day had been delayed by at least 30 minutes. At MDW not surprising: if someone sneezes out of rhythm departures can be delayed, but our departure from DEN was due to the flight being nearly past the maximum weight capacity for the flight. The flight crew seemed nervous while we were waiting. Eventually we were fine, but the pilots – when they announced we were leaving – seemed relieved that no one had been booted from the plane.

        It wouldn’t surprise me if SWA is squeezing things even tighter than usual to try to make sure they get the most out of the staff they have available and improve on ROI wherever possible. We had a grand total of 8 standby passengers at 10:00 AM in the morning.

        It also wouldn’t surprise me if “tweaks” to their IT systems caused cascading failures in staffing allocations because of this optimization.

  20. JFP

    Alex Berenson is not “right wing.” He’s a former NYT reporter. He’s just very skeptical about the COVID vaccines.

    1. d w

      being a former NYT reported, doesnt mean they arent far to the right. and being anti vaccine doesnt mean they are or are not conservative either. is he also skeptical of the polio, and other vaccines too?

      1. anonny

        The polio vaccine is a sterilizing vaccine and has a long history of efficacy and safety, unlike the Covid vaccines. Not really comparable.

      2. jfp

        He is not skeptical of other vaccines, and he’s pretty much a centrist in his politics as far as I can tell.

  21. Code Name D

    Mass wildcat protest actions spanning multiple locations, which take place in breach of bargaining agreements and over union objections,

    But union’s influence over workers is waning. Just because the union didn’t authorize a sick-out, doesn’t mean their isn’t one. Remember, current federal law doesn’t allow strikes, that includes the withholding of labor. So the union couldn’t authorize a sick-out, even if it wanted too. They might quietly do so behind the scene. This would also mean that the reason for the sick-out wouldn’t be clear, because the union couldn’t make any official statements. It’s also not inconceivable that the sick-out is a revolt against the union itself with the union losing control over the workers.

    I will admit there is little evidence that this is about vaccine mandate, but we can’t dismiss sick-outs just yet.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > but we can’t dismiss sick-outs just yet.

      Exactly why I asked for something dispositive. Nobody would be happier than I would be if it turned out that both management and Southwest’s house union’s leadership had no insight whatever into the workers who make their business possible.

      Even better, an “emergent strike” would be a model for others.

      1. Brunches with Cats

        In a system that’s already strained — for whatever reason, whether a crew shortage due to mismanagement, fleet maintenance problems, scheduling foul-ups, weather, military interference, “other,” or some combination of the above (likely) — it wouldn’t take many employees calling in sick to cripple it. If only a few were doing it, would you consider it an “emergent strike?” I would tend to say it’s not, but I have even less of a labor background than you do, so my opinion is subject to change as more info emerges.

        If it is a small faction within the rank-and-file, we likely will not know anything beyond anecdote, at least not immediately. That’s what I meant above by there being almost zero odds of finding any proof that the current crisis is due to organized (however loosely) labor. Apologies if I misinterpreted your quote to which I was responding.

        1. Lambert Strether Post author

          > it wouldn’t take many employees calling in sick… If it is a small faction within the rank-and-file

          But that’s not the rumors we’re hearing. We’re hearing hundreds.

          Ironically, though, a system optimized for a minimal labor force is also a system that’s optimized for being disrupted by that same labor force. The MBAs sharpened their pencils in the backs of their own necks!

          1. Brunches with Cats

            According to the following page on Southwest’s website, it employs 19,352 pilots and flight attendants — and that’s a fraction of their total union-represented employees. If there are indeed “hundreds,” per unsubstantiated rumors, that still would represent a small portion of unionized workers. If it is “hundreds,” though, they could cause serious disruption if they all called in sick at once.

      2. Tom67

        Just like you I´d be very happy if the SW pilots were making a stance. I think there´s a real possibilty that that is indeed happening. I leafed through the more than 700 comments on Berenson´s substack and there´s a lot of people from the airline industry. Ok, this is anecdotal but the sheer number in such a relatively short time point to widespread very deep anger. There´s talk of American Airilines being next. By the way: I am not sure Berenson is rightwing in any other way but him being opposed to identity politics. And I refuse to call identity politics left wing at all. It is the wedge the elites use to subdue the population.

  22. Peter

    Could it also be possible that the issue is caused by pilots taking sick time, but it’s not a coordinated effort? I know most companies pay out PTO time when you quit / are fired, but don’t pay out sick time. If you are a pilot about get laid off because you don’t want to take the vaccine, why not use your sick time?

    If SW is already stretched thin with lack of labor and redundancy, it might not take many pilots independently coming to the decision to use their sick time to cause the chaos we’re seeing.

    1. flora

      Good point. With accrued sick leave it’s use-it-or-lose-it when leaving a job for whatever reason. In some jobs the same applies to accrued PTO time.

      1. Brunches with Cats

        Yes, it’s the same at Washington State Ferries, which offered early retirement options to crew who didn’t want to be vaccinated to keep their jobs. I was going to mention it in previous comments, but they were too long as it was, so thanks Peter and flora for bringing it up.

    2. Lambert Strether Post author

      Speculating freely, I wonder if overwork in the previous months could have caused a “use it or lose it” situation for a large number of pilots, toward the end of the year?

  23. KFritz

    All of this mishegas wouldn’t be possible if Southwest were to be factual and forthright about what exactly is causing it. Crazies and provacateurs can’t work without decent material. Southwest is providing it. Let’s give them full credit and responsibility–for not taking responsibility.

  24. Dave in Austin

    I’m traditionally one of those SWA Air sardines. Sardines fly cheap. SWA also has a workforce that is encouraged to be a bit more free-spirited than that of other airlines- watch the occasional “buckle your belt” skit and listen to the pilot comments about delays. These folks aren’t from NYC, DC or LA… try Columbus, GA or Hattiesburg MS. Disruptive passengers? Never seen one on SWA Air; courtesy on all sides. But I did see a stew turn into small town pancake-house waitresses with one mildly drunk passenger. He got the message.

    I’m also not an anti-vaxer. I volunteered for the Moderna study in February, 2020, when they were desperately short of older volunteers. I’ve had both shots and await the booster. But some woman docs and nurses I know are saying “No way” because they’ve seen the adverse reactions affecting female reproductive cycles. I can’t blame them.

    Finally, I’m about to be seriously inconvenienced by what appears to be at least partly a worker rebellion. I’m scheduled to board a SWA plane in Austin this Wednesday at 5:55 am so I can get to RI, set up my 79 year-old brother’s modest apartment and get him out of the mediocre “rehab” facility he’s been in for two months. Then I get to spend 10 days on his couch exercising him 3-times-day and yelling at him about his diet… all so his diabetic, overweight body might live on its own a bit longer. I volunteered for this also.

    But for me the idea that the President suddenly decides all 80 million people even vaguely connected to the U.S. government must get vaccinated or loose their jobs – exempting, I notice, almost all the restaurant workers and nannies in DC- is a needle-jab too far. Especially since friends in DC note that the Democratic party has not mandated vaccination for its law firms, PR consultants or accountants. And I hear even some DNC staffers are discovering they have immune compromised bodies and are filing for religious exemptions. I’ve seen this game before; it was called the Vietnam draft.

    So I’m holding my nose, cheering on the employees who’ve had enough… and praying.

    1. Brunches with Cats

      You’re a good man, Dave. Best of luck flying in the sardine tin and finding some substitutions your brother can live with.

    2. Tom67

      Great comment! I am German and we have exactly the same problems here with coercion. In fact I personally have the same problem. Everywhere people are looking to Southwest to see whether the pilots will succeed. If they do it will have an impact as it will be the first time the people will have successfully rebelled against these insane mandates. By the way: in the school of my eldest son one vaccinated teacher was testes positive. Afterwards the school mandated that all unvaccinated kids (and only them) should be tested daily. The kids rebelled against this discrimination and now all of them line up to get tested. Who knows. Maybe we will see a new generation rising up just like in 1968!

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