The head of the largest flight-attendant union in the US explains why Delta’s cabin crews might finally vote to unionize

source
Delta

  • Delta flight attendants are organizing a drive to unionize with the AFA, the Association of Flight Attendants.
  • While flight attendants with competitors like United, American, and Southwest are represented by unions, Delta is the largest US airline with nonunion cabin crew employees.
  • Delta flight attendants voted against joining the union in 2002, 2008, and 2010.
  • We spoke with Sara Nelson, president of the AFA, who explained why she thinks this time will be different.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Delta is the biggest airline in the US to have flight attendants who are nonunion. But that may be about to change.

The country’s largest cabin crew union, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA), announced that it is starting a membership drive in an effort to organize Delta’s 25,000 flight attendants.

The drive comes as Delta has reported strong performance over multiple quarters, and as the airline says it plans to hire 12,000 new employees by 2020, including at least 1,000 flight attendants.

Delta flight attendants previously voted against unionizing in 2002, 2008, and 2010. But Sara Nelson, president of the AFA, says she believes the current economic and social landscape will lead to a different outcome this time.

“A lot has changed since 2010,” she told Business Insider. “More than 40% of the flight attendant workforce has been newly hired since then.”

Additionally, the context was different then. After the 2008 election, a rule under the Railway Labor Act that counted any uncast vote in a union election as a “no” was changed, so that the elections would only count votes that were actually cast.

The 2010 election, which took place after the rule change, occurred when Delta and legacy Northwest Airlines employees were kept separately, operating in different pools – Delta and Northwest merged in 2008. Now combined into one pool, legacy Northwest flight attendants, who had been unionized prior to the merger and 2010 vote, have voiced favorable views toward unionization to legacy Delta employees.

“They know what it’s like to have a union contract, a voice at work, due process – all of those things,” Nelson said.

“And now that they’ve been flying with the Delta flight attendants, they’ve been able to talk to people about what that’s like.”

“And that’s at the same time that there’s a new interest in unions by workers across the country,” she added.

The data back up Nelson’s claim. Recent Gallup polling has found union favorability nearing a 50-year high.

American workers have felt increasingly emboldened amidst a strong economy, as employees seek a greater share of robust corporate profits. In addition to organizing drives, this has manifested in employee strikes in varied industries like hospitality, supermarkets, and automotive manufacturing, as well as public service.

Federal law generally prohibits companies from openly discouraging union efforts or penalizing employees for organizing. Delta was criticized on social media this year when photos of antiunion posters began circulating, including one suggesting that employees should spend money on video games instead of union dues.

In a statement, the airline said that it respected the flight attendants’ decision, but felt that a union could be a hindrance to its relationships with employees:

“This marks the AFA’s fourth attempt to organize at Delta, after flight attendants rejected their efforts during three previous elections since 2002. 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 pilots are unionized, but overall its workforce is less organized than at its competitors.

The airline has offered solid pay and benefits in the past, including more than $1 billion per year in profit-sharing with employees over the past five years.

However, Nelson suggested that a decade of profitability, leading Delta to be the most profitable US airline, would lend momentum to the current drive, particularly as employees realize that they could do even better, or have more security.

Contemporary issues also make unionization more appealing, Nelson said, including a recent spate of health issues that flight attendants have attributed to new uniforms issued by the airline in 2019.

“There’s a large number of Delta flight attendants right now who are dealing with toxic uniforms who need the backing of a union to deal with this adequately,” Nelson said. “People want to know that they have a strong voice, a strong union backing their health and safety on the job.”

“The AFA has the resources to be able to deal with that. There’s more to having union membership, than just the provisions in the contract,” like salary and benefits, she added.

A Delta flight attendant Business Insider spoke with, who is not part of the union push, said that she was in favor of unionizing partly because of the uniform issues. She described the process of reporting health effects to the airline as arduous, and said that it’s difficult to get assistance. A group of Delta employees filed a lawsuit against manufacturer Lands’ End earlier this year.

Nelson said that the enthusiasm toward unionization she’s seen on the ground makes her optimistic that the outcome will be different than in 2010.

“We’re only doing this because thousands of Delta flight attendants on their own have been doing this on their own,” she said. “We’re coming in with the full resources of the union and what’s great about it.”

Mark Matousek contributed reporting to this article.