CHAOS: Create Havoc Around Our System

CHAOS is AFA's trademarked strategy of intermittent strikes designed to maximize the impact of an industrial action while minimizing the risk for striking flight attendants.

Right to Strike with CHAOS™

Taking a strike vote demonstrates to management—and to the NMB, and the flying public—that we are ready, willing and able to do whatever it takes. It is a promise to each other as well – we will stick together, and together we will achieve a fair contract.

If and when we did Self Help, we would use CHAOS tactics. This allows us to implement a strike with minimum risk for Flight Attendants and maximum impact on management.

AFA-CWA's CHAOS Strategy

CHAOS is AFA's trademarked strategy of intermittent strikes and other non-traditional work actions. It is an integral part of our public contract campaign, and the strongest weapon in our arsenal. The form CHAOS takes will be unique. Where an intermittent strike against a few flights might work best at one airline, an all-out strike for a day or a week might be the best tactic somewhere else. CHAOS is so powerful because we can adapt it to the specific facts of our campaign, keeping airline executives off balance with the element of surprise.

The First CHAOS Campaign

The first CHAOS campaign began in May 1993, when AFA contract negotiations with Alaska Airlines broke down after 3 years. Management positioned the company for a strike and, after the end of the 30-day cooling-off period in June 1993, imposed drastic cuts in work rules, pay and pension. Nearly 500 office workers from the airline's headquarters were trained to take over Flight Attendant's jobs, and the company hired hundreds of additional scabs ready to go to work as permanent replacements.

AFA's 1500 Alaska Flight Attendants were understandably concerned about the success of a traditional, all-out strike against such forceful odds. Instead, they turned to an innovative strategy of intermittent strikes and other work actions that would Create Havoc Around Our System™, threatening to strike targeted flights anything, anywhere and without notice. The message was straightforward: if you fly Alaska, expect CHAOS.

The CHAOS Message

Thanks to CHAOS picketing, rallies, onboard leafleting and nearly non-stop media coverage, passenger traffic fell dramatically before a single Alaska Airlines flight was struck. Management was forced to fly its replacement Flight Attendants on nearly every flight for almost two months, anticipating random strikes by CHAOS strikers. This emptied headquarters and brought a halt to all normal office work, causing further disruption to the company.

Hundreds of labor activists from other unions supported the Flight Attendants. Some wore green CHAOS t-shirts and leafleted passengers onboard Alaska Airlines flights; others were arrested for civil disobedience for picketing and a sit-in outside company headquarters.

The media blitz generated by CHAOS has since become a hallmark of our most successful campaigns. CHAOS overcomes media stereotypes about strikes with nearly endless coverage of the creativity (and the element of surprise) central to every CHAOS  campaign.

Court Rules CHAOS Legal

As the campaign at Alaska Airlines gained momentum, just twenty-four Flight Attendants struck seven flights, with no advance notice, over a period of nine months. 

The first CHAOS strike took place in Seattle when three flight attendants walked off an Alaska Airlines flight just before passenger boarding. A month later, another crew of flight attendants struck the last flight out of Las Vegas. A few weeks later, AFA struck five flights simultaneously in the San Francisco area.

The CHAOS strikers persisted despite threats, discipline and illegal suspensions. Faced with management's threat to fire the next striker, AFA went to federal court. The court issued an order to reinstate – with full back pay – those strikers who remained on suspension.

The court upheld the Union's legal right to implement intermittent strikes citing protection under the Railway Labor Act. The CHAOS strategy had won protection under the law.

Two weeks after the court ruled, and on the eve of another wave of CHAOS, Alaska Airlines management capitulated and signed a new contract with AFA via fax machine. Under the agreement, Flight Attendants won top-of-the-industry pay; some received as much as a 60% pay increase. They also achieved better work rules, a shorter duty day, and a longer rest  period.

CHAOS Revisited

After CHAOS proved so successful at Alaska Airlines, AFA Flight Attendants have used this strategy at other airlines. At America West in 1999, and at  US Airways in 2000, the mere threat of CHAOS was enough to win  contract settlements. At Midwest Express in 2003, Flight Attendants won a strong first contract just weeks after the end of the cooling-off period. CHAOS succeeded there even before a single flight was struck.

CHAOS provokes strong reactions from airline executives. Some have  taken extreme measures to counteract CHAOS: unbolting seats and removing them from every aircraft; announcing they would cancel the entire schedule rather than risk CHAOS strikes; and double crewing flights as a hedge against a walk out. Nothing they have tried has proved effective, and in the end all have reached agreement with AFA on new contracts.

The Lessons of CHAOS

CHAOS works because it is creative, taking advantage of our strengths and management's weaknesses to maximize our impact and minimize our risk.

CHAOS works because it appeals directly to the passengers' self-interests. Traditional strikes and picket lines are often resented or ignored by the public. By contrast, passengers learn quickly from media coverage of CHAOS that their flight might not depart, or it might not get them home. That element of surprise forces them to alter their travel plans once CHAOS begins.

CHAOS works because of our solidarity and the support we receive from our Union and from our sisters and brothers throughout the labor movement.

CHAOS works because it can be adapted to any situation. Intermittent  strikes  are  just one form of CHAOS. An all-out strike might work better in some situations. But CHAOS always brings an element of surprise that is not part of traditional strikes. That element of surprise makes it more powerful, and keeps management from developing an effective strategy to counter CHAOS.

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