Delta flight attendants in New York gathered in disbelief yesterday to hear the bad news about their month-long union election.
“Don’t slit your wrists, but we lost,” announced flight attendant Matthew Brown, reading from his phone as the returns were released by the National Mediation Board in Washington, D.C.
The vote was 9,216 for representation to 9,544 against, a 328-vote margin.
Slightly fewer than 20,000 flight attendants were eligible to vote. Of those, about 7,000 were members of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA) at Northwest Airlines before the airline was merged into Delta in 2008. They had retained their previous contract after the merger took effect but stood to lose it if the union was voted down.
“As of midnight, our contract is null and void,” said a New York-based flight attendant who’d worked for Northwest. Northwest attendants worried aloud that their new status as at-will employees will mean firings of the most outspoken workers. “They’ll pick us off one by one,” said an angry activist. Managers at the former Northwest hub in Minneapolis told flight attendants to take off their AFA pins.
Brian Terrell, who worked for Northwest for 30 years, described the results as “frightening—this is the end of an era of job protections for us.” Northwest flight attendants have been unionized for 63 years.
But others who’d always worked for Delta also felt the loss sharply.
“I’ve been losing—I’ve experienced a 50 percent loss in compensation,” said Andrea Taylor, referring to the decline in pay and benefits at Delta over the last 15 years. She said the company won’t even tell her what her retirement benefit will be.
AFA activist Danny Valdez said a 5 percent raise this year brought him back to the pay scale of a five-year flight attendant—in 2002. He’s worked at Delta for 30 years.
Airline workers across the industry have faced concessions and employer bankruptcies over the last 15 years, intensifying after 9/11. Unions have been hard pressed to protect workers from longer hours, lower pay, and stingier benefits.
Union supporters expressed disbelief at the reported election turnout, which seemed high by any standard. Of 19,887 flight attendants eligible to vote, 18,760 did so, a turnout of 94 percent.
AFA charges that Delta managers urged flight attendants to vote from work computers in their staff rooms, meaning that votes could be tracked by the employer. The union also charged that its supporters were intimidated.
Valdez thought the high voter turnout was a product of management’s fear-based campaign. The union estimates Delta spent $40 million to fend off AFA.
Delta managers put forth a wall-to-wall anti-union message, Valdez said, “calling you at home, pulling you aside at work.” Piles of glossy mailers with misquotes and misinformation filled up mailboxes.
Delta CEO Richard Anderson played up a culture clash between Northwest’s Northern base and Delta’s Southern workforce, attacking AFA in one company-called meeting for being “un-Christian” and “immoral.” A DVD of the meeting was sent to every flight attendant, Valdez said.
Patricia Friend, AFA’s president, said the union will submit interference charges against Delta management for its “illegal and unfair methods to sway the vote.” The National Mediation Board can order a re-vote if it finds there was interference.
The NMB did order a re-vote in August for a small Delta unit, 91 flight simulator technicians. The board found that management had unduly influenced the election by promising raises.
According to the Machinists (IAM), the NMB described the timing of Delta’s raise announcement as “troubling” because it was made just as technicians started their union vote. The NMB also found that Delta tried to influence the technicians’ votes in one-on-one meetings with managers.
Delta also promised pay raises to flight attendants that coincided with the start of their vote.
In happier news, gate and ramp workers at Piedmont Airlines voted in the CWA today. According to the union, the margin of victory was nearly two to one, despite a high-pressure campaign run by a notorious union-busting firm. The union will represent 2,900 workers at Piedmont, a subsidiary of U.S. Airways.
In New York, pro-union flight attendants at Delta vowed to fight on, anticipating that the union will agitate for a re-vote. It would be the fourth since 2002, although only this month’s election was decided by a simple majority of votes cast.
Previous NMB rules, thrown out earlier this year after President Obama made a new appointment to the board, said a majority of all employees must vote in favor of the union—and that every abstainer is counted as a “no.”
While the union waits for the NMB to rule on management’s interference at Delta, those who had a contract will lose its protection.
“Unfortunately, now you’re going to find out what it’s like to work for Delta,” a pre-merger Delta flight attendant told a co-worker who had come from Northwest.
Following closely on the AFA vote, more than 30,000 ramp and cargo workers and customer service agents are voting on representation with the IAM. Results will be reported by early December.
UPDATE: Flight attendants tell us they "expect the National Mediation Board to conduct a full investigation and order a re-run election," and are asking labor activists to sign a petition calling on Delta to stop union-busting.