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The UAW strike is not the first time a union weaponized the element of surprise

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Any day now, we're told, the United Auto Workers strikes might expand, and that is how this strike has played out. The UAW has been utilizing the element of surprise and has kept people guessing, where and when are they going to strike next? Nick Fountain from our Planet Money team has been looking for clues on where the UAW got this strategy, and he thinks he has an answer.

NICK FOUNTAIN, BYLINE: The flight attendants of Alaska Airlines.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: At Alaska Airlines, we discount fares, but we never discount service.

FOUNTAIN: In 1993, Alaska's flight attendants were faced with this threat. If they striked, they were pretty sure the airline was going to replace them all. David Borer was their lawyer, and he says the flight attendants started to plan counterstrategies.

DAVID BORER: Of course. Sun Tzu says you don't attack your opponents directly. You attack their strategy.

FOUNTAIN: Were you literally the guy quoting Sun Tzu's "The Art Of War" at the union organizing meeting?

BORER: Oh, yeah.

FOUNTAIN: The union spokesperson called a press conference. She got up to the podium and basically said, we are not going on strike - yet. We are going to strike eventually, but we're not going to spill any of the details.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARY JO MANZANARES: So where do we strike? When do we strike? What do we strike? I don't know, and none of you know. And none of management knows. And none of the traveling public knows.

FOUNTAIN: They called this tactic CHAOS, shorthand for create havoc around our system.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Now, live at 11 o'clock, KOMO News 4.

FOUNTAIN: And the media ate it up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Good evening, everyone. If you fly Alaska Airlines, a labor dispute could affect your travel plans.

FOUNTAIN: The looming threat of a strike meant the flight attendants were still being paid, but the airline was losing out on bookings. Gail Bigelow was a flight attendant.

GAIL BIGELOW: I had people calling me at my home saying, oh, I have tickets to take my kids to Disneyland - please, don't strike my flight - I mean, people I barely knew. And so it was working.

FOUNTAIN: When, a couple of months in, flight attendants did finally start walking off flights, Alaska was prepared-ish. Greg Witter normally worked a desk job in media relations, but he got trained as a backup flight attendant, still remembers his first flight.

GREG WITTER: My heart literally was about coming through my throat while I'm doing this safety demonstration. Oh, my God, it was terrible.

FOUNTAIN: How many flights do you think you did that day?

WITTER: One, two, three - God, I think probably at least three.

FOUNTAIN: Witter can't remember exactly because it was a total mess. It was clearly not a sustainable solution for Alaska. When the two sides came to an agreement, lawyer David Borer says, the flight attendants won big.

BORER: We didn't lose a single job. Nobody who struck lost any income. And we got a contract with a 60% raise that we hadn't even asked for.

FOUNTAIN: Flight attendants are governed by different labor laws than autoworkers, so the UAW can't follow this playbook exactly. But Borer says that he knows their president, Shawn Fain, is borrowing the flight attendants' tricks, trying to keep automakers on their toes and keep the media enthralled by weaponizing the element of surprise.

BORER: Nobody's asking Shawn Fain, well, how long do you think you can hold out? They're all saying, oh, when are you going to strike the next plant?

FOUNTAIN: And that, he says, is exactly what worked for the flight attendants.

Nick Fountain, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOKHOV'S "SOUL BREEZE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nick Fountain produces and reports for Planet Money. Since he joined the team in 2015, he's reported stories on pears, black pepper, ice cream, chicken, and hot dogs (twice). Come to think of it, he reports on food a whole lot. But he's also driven the world's longest yard sale, uncovered the secretive group that controls international mail, and told the story of a crazy patent scheme that involved an acting Attorney General.