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labor The Stakes Are Sky High in Historic Delta Labor Battle

A novel partnership among three labor unions to organize tens of thousands of airline workers could set a national example.

For decades, one of the world’s largest airlines has also been one of the most successful at staving off unionization by its employees. That may soon change, thanks to an innovative campaign that could have repercussions far beyond the airline industry.

Organizers on a three-union campaign to unionize Delta’s U.S. workers put the number of potential recruits at over 50,000 — a figure that, if the drive is successful, could set a promising example for cross-union runs at behemoths like Amazon. “We haven’t seen an organizing campaign on this scale” before, said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University. “This is the fight.”

“If over 50,000 Delta workers unionize, that’s going to send shock waves to capitalist America,” said James Carlson, air transport territory coordinator for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM). “Delta’s the tip of the spear with this.”

The current national-scale effort, which began last November, marks a sea change in the three unions’ willingness to work together. While the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA), the IAM and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters are collaborating today, they’ve fought each other — and other unions — in the past. Just four years ago, the IAM squabbled with the AFA-CWA over the right to organize Delta’s flight attendants. Overcoming that history would not only improve workers’ jobs, but offer evidence that multiunion campaigns can successfully take on large, national-scale employers.

Delta is a coveted target for organizers. With only about 20% of its workforce unionized, compared to more than 80% at comparable airlines, it is the largest mostly nonunion airline in the country. It is also one of the most successful; in June, the airline reported record revenue and profits

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Organizing airline workers who fall under the National Railway Act is always a large-scale effort. For a union to be certified, the majority of the entire, nationwide “class” of workers at a specific company has to vote for a union — not just a majority based out of a single airport. At Delta, says Carlson, that means organizing in 46 locations across the U.S. and its territories, from Puerto Rico to Hawaii to Alaska.

In part, the ambition of the campaign reflects the priorities of national leadership: expansion and solidarity. Sean M. O’Brien, the new Teamsters president elected in 2021, launched an aggressive expansion campaign in many industries. AFA-CWA President Sara Nelson, who has risen to national prominence as a labor leader, showed up on Los Angeles picket lines for striking writers and actors. But the campaign also reflects growing public support for unions — a 2022 Gallup poll found 71% of Americans approved of unions, the highest measure since 1965; a presidential administration that has signaled support for unions; a tighter labor market; and post-pandemic angst over job conditions. 

Bronfenbrenner says public support can be an important factor in pressuring employers against dismissing union concerns and garnering backing for such actions as boycotts and picket lines. For Delta workers, she says, a challenge may be overcoming a general “national disgust” with the airline industry. “Everybody finds flying hard,” she said. “The flight attendant is the one sitting there saying you have to sit there and not move.”

In Delta’s hometown of Atlanta, the Georgia AFL-CIO says it is convening meetings of the three unions and garnering some community support for rallies and other efforts it won’t yet divulge. “The thing that I’m excited about from Georgia’s perspective is that it’s not just labor who’s been involved,” says Christopher Daniel, a strategic organizer and trainer at the Georgia AFL-CIO. “It’s labor. It’s community. It’s clergy. Because everybody understands … the historic significance of Delta having their hub being here in Atlanta and being one of the last vestiges of the unorganized major airline carriers.”

“The context has changed,” says Joseph A. McCartin, executive director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University and author of a book on the historic 1981 air traffic controllers strike. “Unions are gaining momentum. They have a friend in the White House. Public opinion is more pro-union than it has been in half a century.”

Union organizers say they’re hearing different concerns from different types of workers. Flight attendants want better pay. Ramp agents are concerned about short-staffing and alleged heat-related illness issues with protective headgear they’re required to wear. Technicians want job security against what they say are arbitrary firings and more say in work rules, safety, training and staffing levels.

Kara Dupuis, an Atlanta-based flight attendant who is on the AFA-CWA organizing committee, came to Delta from a unionized airline and says she quickly learned the difference in leverage over such issues as getting called in to work on a scheduled day off.

“We just don’t have any way to hold the company accountable,” she says. “I can call and say work rules say this, and Delta will say I understand but do it anyway…. I have nobody to advocate for me but me,” Dupuis adds. “It’s me against the world.”

While specific concerns of the different types of Delta workers vary, the three unions say, the lack of input and control over arbitrary workplace changes is a common theme. 

Delta continues to draw workers with pay that even some of the unions acknowledge is attractive. The company is known for boosting pay to industry-high averages, often in response to raises at unionized airlines or after negotiations with its own unionized pilots. In 2022 and early this year, Delta announced a total 9% in raises for most nonunion employees. 

But AFA-affiliated flight attendants say much of that pay is not locked in like it is — often at higher levels — at unionized airlines and instead is subject to Delta’s whims. Dupuis says only 54% of her total compensation is consistent; the rest varies depending on rules that Delta sets, like incentives and premiums, and organizers say the airline lacksa defined sick-day policyThe union also cites data from the Airline Data Project at MIT showing United and American with higher average wages and benefits in 2018, the last year for which statistics are available. 

“Flight attendants need to have a voice at work,” said Nelson, the AFA-CWA president, in a written statement. “Union rights are the only way to accomplish this and stand on equal footing with their employer to negotiate wages, benefits, work rules, and command the respect on the job they deserve.”

Delta has fended off every previous unionization attempt. In 2008, Delta absorbed the largely unionized Northwest Airlines, and the merger negated most of those contracts. In 2010, flight attendants narrowly rejected AFA-CWA unionization.

Approximately 20% of Delta’s more than 90,000-member global workforce is unionized, with the organized segment comprising roughly 15,000 pilots and some dispatchers. Represented by the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), the pilots won a new contract this year guaranteeing significant pay raises. So far, that union is not part of the coalition, but has supported the campaign in other ways.

The rest of the workers do everything else. Organizers say that, in the U.S., there are 26,000 flight attendants who handle safety and meals with passengers; 20,000 ground workers (or “ramp agents”) who handle baggage and move and de-ice aircraft; and 10,000 machinists and technicians who ensure that planes are safe to fly. At Delta, none of those workers are unionized, and the current campaign dedicates a union to each: AFA for the flight attendants, IAM for the ramp workers, the Teamsters for the technicians. Each union leads the organizing for its own class of workers while all three coordinate on communications and such activities as rallies.

The various unions have significant demographic and class differences, Bronfenbrenner notes. Members of the powerful pilots’ union, which is heavily white and male, have long viewed themselves as “quasi-bosses” and have not shared their power to help other Delta workers organize, she said. Flight attendants are mostly women and gay men, she notes, while the machinists’ demographics lean white and ground workers are more diverse.

Unions blame Delta’s sophisticated anti-union tactics, which Bronfenbrenner said are “almost a matter of religion.” In 2019, the airline distributed posters telling workers to spend money on video game systems and football tickets instead of union dues. IAM’s Carlson also alleged that Delta managers follow workers exiting the workplace to discourage them from talking to union organizers and even fire or discipline people involved in organizing.

Delta, in a written statement to Capital & Main, acknowledged employees’ rights to choose a union and said it believes a direct relationship — i.e., an individual one — with its people is “a stronger, faster, and more effective way to drive improvements than union representation would be.” The airline also often touts its pay, benefits and safety rankings, which it says are the best in the industry, although there is no public data against which to check the claims about benefits and safety. 

Delta’s tactics have worked to defeat one-at-a-time union campaigns so far, said Bronfenbrenner — but a cross-union campaign will put them to the test. “They have to fight three anti-union campaigns at the same time, which means they have to be three different places at once,” she said.

While Delta may be the biggest single “shop” targeted for a union campaign today, a successful collaboration could have larger implications, said Wamon Hock, the Teamsters’ Southern Region organizing coordinator. Hock noted that Amazon, with roughly 1 million employees in the U.S., spread across hundreds of work sites, has been a huge target for the Teamsters. Other unions have also set their sights on Amazon. 

If the Delta campaign succeeds, workers at giants like Amazon may come to realize the same thing that the organizers are hearing from Delta workers, said Hock. “What we’re finding is, their issues are quite different,” he said. “But one common thread, one common denominator, is they want a voice in the workplace.”

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