The flight attendants of CHAOS


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Several United Airlines flight attendants wearing “CHAOS” T-shirts at a meeting to decide plans for a potential strike in 2001. CHAOS—an acronym for “Create Havoc Around Our System”—is a strike strategy first used in 1993 during a labor dispute between Alaska Airlines and their flight attendants’ union. The strategy can keep a company guessing about when, where or even how a strike might happen.

Tim Boyle/Newsmakers/Getty Images

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Tim Boyle/Newsmakers/Getty Images

Several United Airlines flight attendants wearing “CHAOS” T-shirts at a meeting to decide plans for a potential strike in 2001. CHAOS—an acronym for “Create Havoc Around Our System”—is a strike strategy first used in 1993 during a labor dispute between Alaska Airlines and their flight attendants’ union. The strategy can keep a company guessing about when, where or even how a strike might happen.

Tim Boyle/Newsmakers/Getty Images

When contract negotiations between Alaska Airlines and their flight attendants’ union broke down in 1993, the union had a choice to make.

The union — The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA — knew that if they chose to strike, Alaska Airlines could use a plan. While Alaska Airlines technically couldn’t fire someone on strike, they could permanently replace the striking flight attendants with new workers. Essentially, if the union went on strike, they could risk thousands of people’s jobs. The flight attendants knew they needed a counter-strategy.

They went with a strategy they called CHAOS: “Create Havoc Around Our System.”

The strategy had two phases. Phase one: The union kept Alaska guessing about when, where, and how a strike might happen. They kept everyone, even their own members, in the dark. And in turn, Alaska Airlines had to be prepared for a strike at any place and any time. Phase two was to go on strike in a targeted and strategic way.

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The havoc that the flight attendants created set off a sort-of labor-dispute arms race and would go on to inspire strikes today. And, it showed how powerful it can be to introduce a little chaos into negotiations.

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Our show today was hosted by Nick Fountain and Kenny Malone. It was produced by Sam Yellowhorse Kesler with help from Dave Blanchard and Willa Rubin, edited by Jess Jiang, fact-checked by Sierra Juarez, and audio-engineering by Hans Copeland. Ayda Pourasad helped with research. Alex Goldmark is our Executive Producer.

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