Delta Flight Attendants Try for Union Again
Cabin crews at Delta, the largest airline in the world since its merger last year with Northwest, are preparing for their third union election in eight years. The result promises to shape the standards of work for flight attendants, and union supporters are banking on a new political appointee to help them get a fairer shake in this election.
The 21,000 flight attendants filed a petition with the National Mediation Board on Monday, seeking a vote to become members of the Association of Flight Attendants, an affiliate of the Communications Workers (CWA). Airline union elections are governed by the NMB because air carriers fall under the Railway Labor Act.
Union activists are hopeful that the NMB’s new chair, Linda Puchala, a former president of AFA/CWA, will ensure a fair election and possibly change the unusual balloting procedure which counts everyone who doesn’t vote as a “no” vote.
“The current method that the NMB uses to count votes for union representation is absurd,” said Veda Shook, who serves as AFA vice-president and oversees organizing. “In what other election does every eligible voter begin as a ‘no’ vote and only become ‘yes’ when they vote? This system favors passivity. Those that choose to not vote or those that don’t care still count as ‘no’ votes.”
As the only major non-union carrier in the U.S., Delta has maintained pay levels comparable to other airlines’, but has inferior benefits. Until this year, Delta did not give flight attendants access to their seniority list. They don’t have a say in work rules and can’t enforce the rights the company says they have. When they retire, their pension is reduced by half the amount they get for Social Security.
Delta flight attendants filed for their first election in August 2001. Just as they prepared to vote, the September 11 tragedy occurred, leaving the industry reeling with uncertainty.
Only 29 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.
VOTING ‘NO’ FROM THE GRAVE
Delta’s second election last year also failed, with 40 percent voting. When the company finally gave the union a list of eligible voters, it included people who had been out of the active workforce for years.
Mollie Reiley, a Northwest flight attendant and AFA member-organizer, coordinated the challenges to the NMB last year. She said it took a long time to get the company’s responses and then NMB rulings.
“We didn’t get the response to some until the day of the election and some never at all,” she said. The process was complicated by the fact that the company is not required to provide employee contact information. More than 800 voters on the list were on medical leave or furloughed.
The union could not find most of them, but discovered that one flight attendant on the list was dead. The company acknowledged her death, but the NMB—whose previous chair had been a Northwest lobbyist—refused to remove her. She became a vote against representation.
The company has harassed, videotaped, and threatened arrest of union activists. In the first election, charges were investigated by the NMB but dismissed. Last year the union filed 119 charges of harassment, intimidation, and denial of access to workers in the workplace, but the NMB refused to even investigate.
THIRD TIME A CHARM?
The big advantage this time is the voting strength of Northwest flight attendants, who have had collective bargaining rights for more than 60 years. Northwest is roughly one-third of the new Delta. AFA/CWA is throwing resources into that side of the campaign and activists expect a very high turnout.
But Northwest can’t carry the day. Even if 90 percent of the Northwest crew votes, the union will still need about 30 percent of the Delta vote as well.
The union faces difficulty because the last election was so recent, and activists at Delta have found it hard to energize the same level of involvement as the last campaign.
Delta also pits the two workforces against each other masterfully. Northwest now has a base in Atlanta, the largest Delta hub. Management has given fantastic trips that used to go to Delta crews—Rome, Tokyo, Shanghai, Hawaii—to the Northwest base. Many Delta flight attendants have fallen right into the trap, turning their rage against Northwest crews instead of Delta management.
Management also puts out confusing and deceptive materials claiming favorable pay, benefits, and conditions. A recent piece claimed that Northwest flight attendants couldn’t bid as short a monthly schedule as Delta, but didn’t mention that Northwest offers leaves of absence with health care while Delta does not.
Of course, it also didn’t mention the power workers gain with a union to have real influence at their job.
Linda Sorenson has been a Delta flight attendant for 41 years and a core activist in all three AFA campaigns. Support independent labor media!