Republican senators and congressmen who have railed against vaccine mandates rushed to praise a protest by airline workers who were resisting getting the shot.
There’s just one slight problem: There’s no evidence it actually exists.
Over the past few days, right-wing anti-vaxxers and the likes of Sens. Ted Cruz and Ron Johnson have managed to turn a series of otherwise boring travel delays into a nationwide working-class protest against Joe Biden and vaccine mandates by private companies that he has encouraged, through the magic of fan fiction and the creative use of correlation as causation.
It all started this weekend when Southwest Airlines canceled over 1,800 flights, stranding passengers across the country. The delays, according to Southwest, were the result of “[air traffic control issues] and disruptive weather.” In a statement issued late Monday night, the FAA said, “None of the information from Southwest, its pilots union, or the FAA indicates that this weekend’s cancellations were related to vaccine mandates.”
Other airlines, however, didn’t see mass flight cancellations despite being exposed to the same weather and air traffic controllers as Southwest, raising questions about why the airline, among all others, was so backed up.
Southwest, like nearly all major airlines, recently announced that it would require a COVID-19 vaccine as a condition of continued employment. On Friday, the same day that flight cancellations began, Southwest’s pilots union filed a motion in federal court to block the company’s employee vaccine mandate which they say “unlawfully imposes new conditions of employment.”
In the confusion, anti-vaxxers, particularly COVID conspiracy theorist Alex Berenson, stepped in to offer an answer to the airline’s problems. The delays, they claimed, were the result of a mass but covert “sickout” of pilots protesting the company’s newly announced vaccine mandate.
However, the Southwest Airline Pilots’ Association, in whose name the supposed sickout is supposedly happening, says it “can say with confidence that our Pilots are not participating in any official or unofficial job actions.” Instead, the union said the airline “has become brittle and subject to massive failures under the slightest pressure” and pointed to the mass flight delays the airline suffered over the summer—months before the company even announced a vaccine mandate—after smaller technical issues caused cascading delays across the company’s operations.
And in an interview with Spectrum News on Monday, Casey Murray, the Southwest Airline Pilots Association president, again pushed back on the social media claims and said that internal data shows no increase in sick time. “Pilot sick calls are right in line with what we saw this summer,” he said.
But the denials from Southwest’s pilots union and the airline haven’t stopped Republican members of Congress from praising the unprovable vaccine protest and condemning the airline for mandating jabs.
“I stand with #Southwest Airlines employees who are fighting against these mandates,” Arizona Republican congressman Andy Biggs proudly proclaimed on Monday.
Ted Cruz hopped on the right-wing sickout meme early on Sunday as it gathered support on Twitter. “Joe Biden’s illegal vaccine mandate at work! Suddenly, we're short on pilots and air traffic controllers,” he wrote. (Cruz’s tweet appeared to suggest that federal air traffic controllers, in addition to Southwest employees, were participating in the supposed vaccine mandate—an additional claim no one else has made.)
Sen. Ron Johnson tweeted a request that the airline drop its vacine mandate. “I’m asking, stop the madness bfore the damage is done.”When asked what evidence Johnson had for the existence of an alleged sickout, Johnson said in a statement to The Daily Beast that “It is a clear result of his freedom robbing vaccine mandates that we are seeing and will continue to see staffing shortages across industries and all over the country.
Spokespeople for Cruz and Biggs did not return requests for comment.
Since then, right-wing pundits have wishcasted the Southwest delays into a promised “general strike” among working-class transportation employees across the nation. Far-right social media accounts seized on Amtrak’s announcement of delays on two Amtrak shuttle trains between Springhaven, Connecticut, and Springfield, Massachusetts, as evidence that their hoped-for movement is spreading, despite the absence of any evidence the delays have anything to do with the rail system’s recently announced vaccine mandates. In an email to The Daily Beast on Tuesday, Amtrak spokesperson Jason Abrams said rumors of a vaccine sickout were “not accurate.”
Fox News star Tucker Carlson kicked off his Monday night program by claiming he had reporting that tied the cancellations to an anti-vax sickout. After referencing the airline’s official explanation on the canceled flights, the far-right host said it’s “not what happened” and “all of that was a lie.”
“We’ve spoken to several people with direct knowledge of what actually did happen,” he declared. “We can tell you the shutdown of Southwest Airlines over the weekend was a direct consequence, it was a reaction to Joe Biden’s vaccine mandates.”
Public polling—as well as the results from other companies that have implemented mandates in recent months—show little support for the anti-vaccine position on COVID shots.
Polls show that public support for vaccine mandates has actually increased with at least 60 percent of Americans supportive of the requirements in a recent Gallup poll.
And the Biden administration touts numbers that it says show vaccine mandates actually work in getting people vaccinated. In public comments on Oct. 7, Biden said that “as more and more organizations have implemented their own [vaccine] requirements, they have seen their vaccination rates rise dramatically.” As evidence, Biden pointed to a drop in the number of unvaccinated Americans, from 95 million down to 67 million, after the administration announced a federal employee vaccine mandate.
And while some industries—particularly in law enforcement—have seen staffing problems over the vaccine mandate, airlines thus far haven’t been among them.
Justin Baragona contributed to this report.
Updated to add comments.