Nation's largest flight-attendant's union makes another run at Delta

Originally published in The Star Tribune by Kristen Leigh Painter on November 9, 2019

The nation’s largest flight-attendant union is launching a formal campaign to unionize Delta Air Lines’ cabin crew nearly a decade after the group last voted on representation.

The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, commonly called AFA, earlier this month said it is officially backing Delta workers’ organizing efforts at the behest of “thousands” of the airline’s flight attendants. The move brings more money and order, as well as influential national labor leaders, to the effort.

AFA’s push comes on the heels of other major wins in the U.S. labor movement. Last month, union workers at General Motors called a strike that led to contract gains, and which quickly paved the way for a new contract at Ford Motor Co. And there have been a series of successful teachers strikes and walkouts across the U.S., from Denver to Chicago to South Carolina. A recent Gallup poll shows support of unions in America is 64%, near a 50-year high.

Delta, the only major U.S. airline whose flight attendants are not unionized, has a reputation for strong anti-union sentiment. Less than 20% of its workforce is unionized, with the pilots being the only significantly sized work group that is the exception.

The last time Delta’s flight attendants voted on whether they wanted to be an organized labor group was in 2010, two years after the merger with Northwest Airlines. At that time, there was a clear Delta-Northwest divide, with Delta’s Atlanta hub largely voting against unionization and Northwest’s Minneapolis and Detroit hubs holding a more favorable union stance. That effort failed by a narrow 300-vote spread.

And while the historical north-south division still lingers, union leaders and historians said times have changed and today’s labor movement, including among flight attendants, is about practical livelihood matters more than a particular ideological legacy.

“Delta is a much more global company with a global workforce that has an utterly different relationship with the Northwest-Delta drama than they had at that time,” said Ryan Murphy, a labor historian at Earlham College and author of the “Deregulating Desire: Flight Attendant Activism, Family Politics, and Workplace Justice.” “We are talking about a vastly different labor movement and a vastly different Delta.”

The Atlanta-based airline said organizing efforts haven’t worked in the past and it doesn’t believe they will succeed this time either.

“The AFA has tried before. I’m not sure it is at the request of the Delta flight attendants; I think it was the AFA’s own initiative,” Ed Bastian, chief executive of Delta, said in a Star Tribune interview last week. “It’s not new that a union wants to organize. There are always unions — and it’s not just the AFA — that have been for years trying to have the same effect. I feel optimistic that the Delta spirit is going to stay the same.”

Sara Nelson, president of the AFA and a rising star in the U.S. labor movement, said this moment is different.

“A lot of things have changed in the nine years since their last vote,” Nelson said. “That was an incredibly difficult, uninspirational time [with bankruptcies, layoffs and consolidations]. The company really played that up and pitted workers against each other.”

More than 40% of Delta’s 25,000 flight attendants have been hired since that time and have never been through a union vote, she said. “There is a lot of excitement within Delta around AFA. The number of the younger generation getting involved is overwhelming,” Nelson said. “What we are hearing and what we are seeing is that this next group is not really buying the anti-union rhetoric.”

Delta is the world’s largest airline by revenue and far more profitable than its major competitors. Bastian said flight attendants have growth opportunities and a more secure future as a result of its size and financial strength.

Nelson said that profitability is all the more reason Delta should be sharing the wealth with the people who provide the high-caliber service that assists in that success.

For some Delta flight attendants, there is interest in a union contract for reasons that go beyond base wages. Flight attendants talk about the importance of work rules that can provide predictability and a sense of control over one’s schedule, for instance.

As well, airline crews tend to be stationed in cities with high costs of living, historian Murphy pointed out. As housing costs have outpaced income growth in many major markets, some middle-class flight attendants talk about struggling to make ends meet in a way they weren’t in the 1990s, he said.

“Where you might see some of the margins shifting toward unions is the rising cost of living coupled with the deluge of media coverage about Delta’s profitability,” Murphy said.

Flight-crew wages can be difficult to compare across airlines because they vary so greatly depending on seniority, hours worked and other income sources, like profit-sharing. Part of the variability is that some airlines, like Delta, only pay their crews for time spent flying, from when the airplane door closes to when it opens, while others also pay for time spent on the ground, such as during layovers or flight delays.

Delta flight attendants who show up for a flight that is canceled can return home without any pay and be given priority to pick up another flight, or they get paid to immediately go on-call for another flight.

“If a thunderstorm cancels your flight and you suddenly have to scramble to pick up another flight just to pay your rent, and then you have to rearrange your child care because of that,” Murphy said. “The union can guarantee in advance some income for that time lost.”

Bastian said he is confident the flight attendants will ultimately choose to maintain the Delta culture.

“From my standpoint, we respect our employees’ decisions if they decide that is something of interest, but we are focused on the future. Delta is the best and it is always going to stay the best. It’s the reason that throughout our 95-year history, the people have always decided that direct representation with their management team is the best approach,” Bastian said. “The teamwork that we have together with all of our employees is what makes Delta a unique place. It’s why we are the best-performing airline in the world, the best employees in the industry and the best-paid.”

The union is gearing up for the long, uphill battle to even get enough support to bring forward a vote. Nelson said she’s optimistic.

“Delta flight attendants put the heart in Delta, and if they really respect them, let them have their union. Put it in writing,” she said. “They can use smoke and mirrors to make it look pretty, but the people living it are telling a different story.”