If you ask me (I know, you didn't), the US National Mediation Board is a curious and mysterious entity. It is tasked with the Herculean job of ensuring labour stability in the country's rail and airline industries, which by no stretch of the imagination is a walk in the park.
And, you guessed it, when negotiations between a given airline management and a particular labour group sputter, they can seek out a board staffer to help kickstart talks.
What happens in these mediated talks remains largely under a dark shroud, until a union gets fed up and pulls the strike threat lever.
That's what happened this week when American's flight attendants said enough is enough. They're formally seeking release into a 30-day cooling off period, which means they can take "self help" measures [read strike] once the that period ends. Let's not even get into the irony of doing something as disruptive as striking at the end of a cooling off period. But these employees have some huge frustrations over emotionally charged issues of pay and work rules, not to mention concessions made in 2003 to help American stave off a bankruptcy filing.
American thinks a 14 month stint in mediated negotiations is too short a time for either side to need to cool off.
"Historically, negotiations settled during mediation in the airline industry last an average of 19 months after the mediator comes on board, and again, on average, a declaration of an impasse by NMB may take even longer," says American.
But two of three members overseeing the board are what you might describe as labour friendly. They were appointed by US President Barack Obama, who drew enormous applause from labour when he took office just over a year ago. So, the time to declare an impasse could very well be shortened.
Then again, no administration wants to be saddled with handling a strike at the world's second largest airline, so predicting outcome is akin to shaking a Magic 8 ball.
Rumours are also flying that NMB is close to finalising a proposed rule that would drastically alter how union elections are conducted at airlines. If the rule is adopted, a union can win a representation election by capturing the majority of the votes cast, rather than requiring a majority of the group affected electing to have union representation. Lawyers with the Air Transport Association of America are poised to pounce if NMB reverses current procedure.
In the mean time, here's a pretty fiery video from American's flight attendants union that accuses carrier negotiator's from walking out of talks. Not so, says American. "The notion that we walked out is categorically untrue." Stayed tuned to see happens....