Delta Flight Attendants to Vote on Union Next Month

Delta flight attendant Toni Weinfurtner, left, and Diana Mitcham, a Northwest flight attendant, thank CWAers this July for their support in the Delta organizing campaign. Photo: CWA.

The fight is on at Delta Airlines in the next two months, where 20,000 flight attendants have their best chance yet to win union representation.

It’s a make-or-break vote for former Northwest cabin crews, who have been working for Delta under their old union contract since the two airlines merged in 2008. For them, this election will determine whether they lose their union and their contract, or gain another 13,000 sisters and brothers.

Voting to join the Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA) will start September 29 and ballots will be counted November 3.

The election is significant for workers in the South, since half of Delta’s cabin crews are based in Atlanta. But Southern workers’ suspicion of unions and lack of experience with organized labor are obstacles.

New election rules are making flight attendant activists hopeful, despite defeats at Delta in 2002 and 2008.

“Before, all Delta had to do was make enough noise to convince people to be neutral or not sure—because everyone who didn’t vote was counted as a ‘no’ vote,” explained Joshua DeVries, a former flight attendant and AFA member-activist.

Under new rules instituted by the National Mediation Board June 1, elections for interstate transportation unions will now be decided by a simple majority of votes cast.

Such elections generally fall under the Railway Labor Act’s rules, which were changed to come into line with other union election procedures after a request from the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department.

ANTI-UNION BLITZ

Delta has been the largest anti-union holdout in the U.S. airline industry, but those days may be ending. An additional 20,000 Delta fleet service workers, reservations agents, and others are gearing up to vote on representation by the Machinists (IAM) in the next few months. No dates have been set yet for the Machinists elections.

Management has been very aggressive, said Delta flight attendant Simone Cerasa. The anti-union campaign has included a blitz of media, including mailers, videos, posters, webcasts, pre-recorded phone calls, visits from upper management, and “even messages when you turn on your computer,” he said.

Surveillance has been intense in worker lounges. One supervisor walked by 45 times in three hours, according to union activists who started to keep count.

Cerasa said Delta managers point to the concessionary contract forced on Northwest flight attendants after the company’s 2005 bankruptcy to argue that the union can’t win much. “They never compare us to unionized airlines that didn’t go through bankruptcy, like Southwest,” he added.

They’ve also claimed that Delta’s flight attendant pay is comparable to that at other carriers. But Delta flight attendants don’t get as many paid hours, because of scheduling rules, resulting in an average yearly salary $10,000 below American and Continental, according to AFA.

It has been a difficult summer, Cerasa said, with management blunders causing severe short staffing and scheduling nightmares. “Flight attendants on cancelled flights have had to sleep in the airport because no managers were available to approve a hotel room,” he said.

This impression of management disorganization, along with the widespread perception of favoritism and continued worries about pay, benefits, and job security, have left flight attendants with plenty of reasons to vote yes.

CAUTIOUS OPTIMISM

Because pre-merger Northwest flight attendants know the power of having a union and a contract, the AFA campaign has focused on reaching out to this strong base, said Kim Kaswinkel, a U.S. Airways flight attendant who worked on the 2008 Delta campaign.

Kaswinkel is cautiously optimistic this time around, but identified two obstacles: anti-union attitudes in the South and a “Daddy Delta” mentality promoted by the company which makes workers think they owe their careers to Delta rather than to their own hard work.

Still, she says, it will be hard for management to come up with 7,000 “no” votes to counter the high, positive turnout expected among Northwest flight attendants.

Kaswinkel will be working on the “get out the vote” effort in the coming weeks. She said it will include “visibility campaigns” at major hubs, including Detroit, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, Atlanta, and New York City. In addition, call centers will be set up in Salt Lake City and Minneapolis.

“I believe we have a majority of the workforce, it’s just a matter of turning out the vote,” said Cerasa, noting that this is the largest union drive ever under the Railway Labor Act. And under the new rules, “we don’t start with 20,000 votes against us.”