Flight attendants' and teachers' unions whose members are on the front lines of disputed covid safety protocols are ardent enforcers of mask mandates for the public but do not require their members to get vaccinated. Such inoculation is widely acknowledged as the most effective measure in stopping the spread of the highly infectious new Delta variant, while masking is viewed as of secondary importance and many are highly skeptical of its effectiveness and critical of its inconvenience.
As the Association of Flight Attendants continues to urge federal authorities to allow flight attendants to police passengers for masking – a policy that has led to fisticuffs on some flights – the union has struck an agreement with at least one airline, United, to allow unvaccinated members to fly. American Airlines and Southwest Air say they also do not require their flight attendants or other employees to vaccinate. Flight attendants for both airlines are unionized. Other airlines did not respond to inquiries.
Meanwhile, the American Federation of Teachers has refrained from demanding that its members be vaccinated, but it insists on masks for the nation’s mostly unvaccinated schoolchildren despite their low vulnerability to infection. The union also pushes for hazard pay and generous sick leave for teachers.
Related: Widespread New Moves to Require Worker Vaccines Washington Post
With President Randi Weingarten of the AFT, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, praising recent Centers for Disease Control guidance requiring unvaccinated students to mask up, some districts are imposing mask requirements for students regardless of vaccine status -- Philadelphia and Detroit public schools among them. The state of California is also imposing the requirement. Meanwhile, the Chicago Teachers Union is demanding that 80 percent of students be vaccinated before teachers return to the classroom. AFT affiliates represent teachers in all of those cities as well as parts of California.
The unions have maintained their stances throughout the pandemic. While virus cases in the U.S. have dropped 80 percent since January, the rapid spread of the Delta variant has alarmed public health officials and union leaders.
But there appears to be a disconnect between the positions of the two unions and their close allies in the Biden administration, which has always urged vaccination. Administration officials are now reported to increasingly refer to the current outbreak as a “pandemic of the unvaccinated,” although a new mask policy is said to be also under consideration.
In a June 30 letter to federal authorities, President Sara Nelson of the flight attendants’ union cited the Delta variant as a reason to keep passengers masked. The union did not reply to requests for comment on its vaccination position.
“Masks not only help to protect more vulnerable passengers from the Delta variant, but they also help to protect passengers and crewmembers who are unable to get vaccinated for valid medical reasons -- but still need to fly,” Nelson wrote in the letter to the Centers for Disease Control and the Transportation Security Administration. The letter came days after two Republican Senators introduced a bill in Congress to end mandatory masking on public transportation.
On planes, flight attendants conduct “safety and mask” checks, repeatedly cruising the cabin for violators. The flight attendants’ union as well as Air Line Pilots Association, International, the pilots’ union, insist on masking for their members to work safely.
Nelson claimed in her letter that while most passengers are “compliant” with mask mandates on airplanes, the number of in-flight conflicts between passengers and flight attendants was “at an all-time high.” In response, some flight attendants this month will begin self-defense training to deal physically with passengers who might react violently to orders.
Delta and United Airlines now require all new U.S. hires, including flight attendants and pilots, to be vaccinated, but vaccinations are not required for previously hired United flight attendants, per a deal between the union and the airline. Delta, where flight attendants are not unionized, did not respond to an emailed request for comment, nor did other airlines -- JetBlue, Frontier, Alaska, Spirit and Allegiant. Federal law can allow businesses to require the COVID-19 vaccine for employees under certain conditions.
American Airlines and United offer staffers extra vacation time off as an incentive to get vaccinated.
In public schools, no vaccine requirement has been imposed for students or staffers.
Weingarten told NPR recently that “[nine] out of 10 of my members have taken the vaccines,” while lauding the CDC guideline that keeps children under 12 masked this fall. But she may have misspoken: An AFT spokesman in an email said her statement referred to a poll in March by Democratic pollsters Hart Research Associates that found that 76 percent had been vaccinated. The telephone survey queried 1,700 of the AFT’s 1.6 million members.
Weingarten, who for months advocated keeping schools closed despite numerous studies that found children were highly unlikely to carry the virus, declined an interview request.
With no vaccine requirement, school districts have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on barriers and masks.
The Texas State Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association teachers union, demanded protection for its members when the state forced public schools to resume in-person learning. So the district in the Dallas suburb of Richardson spent $663,000 on plexiglass shields to protect teachers, even as students were masked.
“The teacher’s association was pushing hard for this,” said Lynn Davenport, a local activist who has pushed back against strict mandates since the outset of the pandemic. “They said it was what the teachers wanted.”
Unions have used the virus to seek extra pay in some cases, citing hazard pay provisions in their contracts. And coronavirus stimulus pay has gone to teachers in some districts.
In the Lakeside Union School District in Southern California, the Lakeside Teachers Association negotiated nearly $247,000 in bonus payments to teachers, including monthly stipends between October and June totaling $167,000 for “maintaining distance learning attendance records.”
Richard Berman, executive director of Union Facts, a group that tracks and often criticizes organized labor, says that while the demands of flight attendants are somewhat understandable, much of the pressure coming from the two unions illustrates the political power dynamics at play. “In both cases, the parents and the flyers are the most inconvenienced by these sought-after actions,” Berman said.
“In this case, parents and flyers are very unorganized and can’t do anything to object in a meaningful way like a company can,” Berman said. “So even if the demands are unreasonable, it gives the union in both cases more power than they would usually have.”
The unions’ Democratic allies in Congress last year advocated for the most stringent measures to fight the virus, including lockdowns, cancellations, closures and masking.
In May the CDC declared that masks were unnecessary for the vaccinated persons, even in indoor settings. Despite that, the two unions have lobbied Congress to continue masking restrictions.
“The union message has been ‘we want all schools to be open but on our terms,’ said Nat Malkus, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, who runs the Return to Learn tracker, which follows districts returning to in-person learning.
“And that turns, a lot of the time, into demands for a list of things to be done before reopening that can be very difficult to accomplish.”
In contrast, many private schools have reopened quickly for in-person learning.
Six states, all led by Democratic governors, say they will require masks in K-12 schools this fall, regardless of vaccination status. The AFT helped shaped school guidance by the CDC last year, emails show, including mask requirements.
The United Teachers Los Angeles made mandatory masking of students part of its agreement with the district to return to the classroom. UTLA President Cecily Myart-Cruz did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Seeking to relax the air travel restrictions, Republican Sens. Rick Scott of Florida and Mike Lee of Utah introduced a measure in June that would allow airlines to set their own mask policies, but that was shut down by Democrats amid union opposition.
“The science just does not support keeping the mandate in place,” Scott said in introducing the failed measure. His office said the senator would continue to battle the “efforts by Democrats to ignore the science.”
Last year, a move to assure the authority of the Federal Aviation Administration in dictating mask requirements was led by two regular recipients of political donations by the flight attendants' union PAC, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who chairs the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, and committee member Rick Larsen (D-Wash.).
The PAC donates almost exclusively to Democrats, which last year gave rise to speculation that Nelson could become Joe Biden’s running mate. Nelson did not respond to an interview request.
Last week, the United Airlines Master Executive Council of the pilots union, which represents United Airline pilots, met in person for the first time since early 2020. Vaccinated members were not required to mask.