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 own members to get vaccinated. Inoculation is widely acknowledged as the most effective step in stopping the spread of the new Delta variant, while masking is 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.
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.
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. 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.
The unions have held their ground 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 now increasingly refer to the current outbreak as a “pandemic of the unvaccinated,” although a new mask policy is said to also be 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. The letter came days after two Republican Senators introduced a bill in Congress to end mandatory masking on public transportation.
Nelson claimed 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.” Some flight attendants this month will begin self-defense training.
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. Delta, whose flight attendants are not unionized, did not respond to an email request for comment, nor did other airlines—JetBlue, Frontier, Alaska, Spirit and Allegiant.
In public schools, no vaccine requirement has been imposed for students or staffers. Weingarten, who has 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.
Unions have used the virus to seek extra pay in some cases, citing hazard pay provisions in their contracts. And COVID stimulus pay has gone to teachers in some districts.
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 from the two unions illustrates their political power. “In both cases, the parents and the flyers are the most inconvenienced by these sought-after actions,” Berman said.
Union political donations, including from the teachers’ federation and flight attendants’ union, overwhelmingly go to Democrats and liberal causes. 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 shape school guidance by the CDC last year, emails show, including mask requirements.
Seeking to relax the air travel restrictions, Republican Senators 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 effort 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.”
Editor’s note: This article was adapted from an article that first appeared at RealClearInvestigations.