Largest US flight attendant union targets Delta cabin crews

Originally published in CNBC by Leslie Josephs on November 1, 2019

The biggest flight attendant union in the U.S. on Friday said it is starting a membership drive at Delta Air Lines, the biggest U.S. airline with nonunionized cabin crews.

Delta has some 25,000 flight attendants, the company said this year.

The drive by the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which also represents flight attendants at United and Spirit, comes amid an emboldening of rank-and-file employees, clamoring for a bigger piece of corporate profits. The recent 40-day strike of 48,000 union members at General Motors ended with a new contract that included $11,000 ratification bonuses.

The AFA’s unionization drive also coincides with a big hiring spree by Delta. The company said last month that it wants to hire 12,000 people through 2020.

Other airline employees have recently voted to unionize, including JetBlue Airways cabin crews in April 2018. Delta’s workforce is less unionized than other carriers but its pilots are unionized.

“While we respect our flight attendants’ right to choose whether or not to support AFA representation, we feel that our direct partnership with Delta people plays a significant role in our award-winning culture and customer experience including our ability to respond and implement quickly to our flight attendants’ ideas and feedback,” Delta said in a statement.

Delta was criticized on social media earlier this year after photos of anti-union posters that suggested workers spend their money on a video game system or tickets to a baseball game instead of union dues.

The Atlanta-based carrier is the most profitable U.S. airline and posted net income of $3.94 billion last year, according to FactSet.

Delta flight attendants have rejected AFA representation three times since 2002, most recently in a close vote in 2010.

Sara Nelson, president of the AFA, said, “it’s a completely different atmosphere” compared with 2010, when Delta was fresh from a merger with Northwest Airlines.

The union is betting that steady profitability since 2010 and other organization drives will give the latest push more momentum.

Delta in February announced $1.3 billion in profit-sharing with its 80,000 employees, its fifth consecutive year of sharing more than $1 billion with its staff.

Nelson contends that a contract would give flight attendants greater protections.

“Management can promise things but they can take those things away,” Nelson said.

The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers is also trying to organize Delta flight attendants and ramp workers but they haven’t yet held a vote. In a statement, the IAM said it was “deeply concerned and disappointed” by the AFA’s drive and said its campaign will continue.