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A Union of Their Own -the Most Militantly Feminist Union

How a culture of gross sexism in the airlines created America’s most militantly feminist union. Every officer comes from the ranks of working flight attendants, there is no gap between the lived experience of the rank and file and union leadership.

collage: The American Prospect,

The first thing to appreciate about the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) is that it was born feminist. Its feminism and its militance have nourished each other. The second thing to appreciate is that AFA is among the most democratic of American unions. Every officer comes from the ranks of working flight attendants, so there is no gap between the lived experience of the rank and file and the union bureaucracy.

“The people who are representing you are people who work your same job, at your same airline, at your same base, and they understand directly what the job is,” says Sara Nelson, who has served as AFA president since 2014. “It also means you can also hold your leaders directly accountable.”

Nelson, 50, is among the most charismatic and admired of union leaders, even though AFA, with just under 50,000 members at 19 different airlines, is a relatively small union. After the death of AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka in 2021, Nelson seriously considered running to succeed him, but ultimately decided against it. (The labor federation is now headed by Liz Shuler, its former secretary-treasurer.)

The union is widely admired (or feared, depending on your viewpoint) for the ingenuity and sheer nerve of its tactics. One technique, which AFA has literally trademarked, is called CHAOS, which stands for “Creating Havoc Around Our System.” CHAOS involves having a small number of flight attendants walk off the job just as a flight is boarding, with no advance notice to management. Unlike a conventional strike involving all workers, where management can wear down a union whose strike fund goes only so far, CHAOS disruptions involve only a few workers and hit management where it is most vulnerable.

Nelson has also been very astute and audacious at using her political influence. When the airlines began incurring massive losses as the COVID pandemic took hold, it was Nelson who persuaded Congress to approve the Payroll Support Program, an airline bailout of $25 billion in grants and $25 billion in loans under the 2020 CARES Act. The federal money was conditioned on no worker layoffs, no stock buybacks, no dividends, and no raises to executives.

Nelson came up with the pro-labor terms after strategy sessions with four staffers for Elizabeth Warren. She sold the unusual bargain to key airline leaders and used her close alliance with House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chair Peter DeFazio, a fellow Oregonian, to make sure that this would be the deal, or no deal.

American Airlines’ then-president Doug Parker, who had worked with Nelson for more than a decade since his days as CEO of America West and then US Airways, called Nelson at home on the evening of March 18, 2020, and enlisted her to come to the downtown Washington office of Airlines for America. Some 20 glum-looking executives in suits had been working all day in vain to sell their idea of an unconditional bailout to key congressional leaders.

Nelson pitched her plan, picked up the phone, and called DeFazio. The execs realized that she had far more influence than they did. Parker credits Nelson for getting the deal done. “The airlines certainly didn’t put those [terms] in,” Parker told an interviewer. “It was good policy.” 


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The pandemic put off a long-awaited set of demands for flight attendants. For more than a decade after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the airlines lost money. In 2020, after several years of restored airline profits, several contracts were up for renegotiation. But just as bargaining began, the pandemic hit. The airlines collectively lost about $35 billion in 2020.

Contracts are up again at several major airlines, and with passenger demand back and companies back to profitability, flight attendants are ready to win their due. But despite inspired leadership, creative tactics, and member solidarity, AFA faces a tough round of contract bargaining, because the airlines find themselves in a different sort of crisis—one that is self-inflicted.

The airlines stuck to the letter of the bailout agreements by not laying off workers, but they violated the spirit by offering pilots generous early-retirement packages to reduce their pilot payroll. They then found themselves short of crews and vulnerable to chaos (lowercase) when passenger demand returned. It was part and parcel of an industry strategy to maximize profits by getting rid of all the slack in the system—all flights booked full, few standby planes, and few extra flight attendants.

Airlines offered reservations on flights that they lacked the crews to staff. Holiday weekends produced long delays and tens of thousands of flight cancellations. The Department of Transportation, which has handled the airlines very gingerly ever since the disruptions of 9/11, belatedly responded to consumer and media pressure and began levying fines for deceptive practices.

So the flight attendants are in the position of pushing for long-deferred gains in wages and work rules at a time when the airlines are preoccupied cleaning up a mess of their own creation. Before this round of bargaining is over, industry chaos may well lead to labor CHAOS.

THE FIRST UNION OF CABIN ATTENDANTS, the Air Line Stewardesses Association, was founded by United Airlines workers in 1945. All of the organizers were women, at a time when the labor movement was heavily male. The union’s founding president was Ada Brown, a registered nurse who was working as a stewardess. “In that era,” says Nelson, “there were not very many jobs that women were allowed to do, and not a lot of respect for women’s work. The union was formed to turn a job into a career.”

In just six months, Brown and seven other activists enlisted 75 percent of the stewardesses at United to sign union cards and won a contract in 1946. “The fact that it was women who formed this union and then demanded that it be a real democratic union means that our union is as close to the membership as you can possibly get in terms of decision-making power,” Nelson says.

From the beginning of flight attendant unions, issues of gender and gender treatment have predominated. The first contract with United in 1946 included an innovative system that enabled stewardesses to bid for flights based on seniority. The bidding system allows a flight attendant to plan her schedule well in advance, to maximize time off or time with family, rather than being at the mercy of management. The system was also instituted, says Sara Nelson, “to make sure that managers couldn’t try to exploit flight attendants by trading sex for preferred schedules.”

At a time when retail, fast-food, and hotel workers at non-union hotels have no control over their schedules, the flight attendant bidding system seems far ahead of its time. It’s important to remember that in 1946, the labor laws were still well enforced and unions seemed here to stay. Stewardess organizing gained a tenuous foothold at a historical moment when both the law and employer assumptions were far more benign than they are today. William Patterson, president of United in that era, was not hostile to collective bargaining. He was the first airline executive to hire stewardesses, in 1930, and he was fond of saying that stewardesses needed a union. His only daughter became a stewardess.

In 1949, the Stewardesses union became a semiautonomous unit of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), which had its own subsidiary representing flight attendants at American. ALPA hoped the new affiliation would increase their bargaining power. But stewardess relations with the all-male pilots were at least as fraught as their relations with airline executives.

In principle, the pilots wanted to help all occupations in the airline industry to get organized. But in practice, they wanted to call all the shots and have final say over decisions made by the stewardess unit. “We were just sick and tired of the pilots telling us what to do,” says Diane Tucker, a longtime union leader who has held positions at every level of AFA and currently serves as the United AFA benefits chair.

In 1973, there was a relatively amicable breakup with the pilots, and AFA eventually got its own charter. “We had to leave a male-dominated union, so that we could have our own say,” Nelson says. “We believe we are the only union in America that was formed by women and is still run by women.”

Sara Nelson, AFA president since 2014, is among the most charismatic and admired of union leaders.  (Tom Williams/AP Photo  //  The American Prospect)

Stewardesses did not become feminists because the profession attracted young women with ideological motivations. The opposite was true. Most were attracted by the perceived glamour, the schedule flexibility, and travel opportunities, at a time when few occupations were open to women. This led to widespread demand for the jobs. In 1961, United had some 50,000 applications for about 350 openings. It was a buyer’s market.

Nelson, from a conservative family in Corvallis, Oregon, became a flight attendant at age 22 in 1996 because it beat waitressing. Nelson says she had little knowledge or appreciation of unions until early in her career as a flight attendant based in Boston, when her union rep helped her collect delayed paychecks.

Only after being hired did stewardesses become feminists, because of the daily humiliations at the hands of male bosses and male norms.

In the 1950s and ’60s, stewardesses were subjected to an array of demeaning rules and inspections that seemed like a parody of sexism and male domination. They had height and weight limits, and were subject to girdle, bra, slip, and weight checks. Nail polish had to come from an approved list of styles and hues. Hair coloring was prohibited. They were not permitted to marry, and they could not work beyond age 32. None of these rules applied to male employees.

The airlines liked women who stayed for a few years, and then left to start families. Denying stewardesses long-term careers increased the airlines’ bargaining power and saved them money on pensions and health insurance. At United, the average stewardess stayed just 32.4 months. The New York Times quoted United senior vice president for personnel Charles Mason: “If that figure ever got up to thirty-five months, I’d know we’re getting the wrong kind of girl. She’s not getting married.” And this was in 1965, after the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

In that era, most passengers were male. Pilots were exclusively male. Airline executives were entirely male. And in the very era when second-wave feminism was taking hold, the airlines became more flagrant in their use of stewardesses as sex objects, presenting their workers both as wholesome girls next door who welcomed you on board, attended to your comfort, and served you food and drink—and who maybe were available to do more, if only in your dreams.

In 1971, National Airlines sponsored an infamous ad campaign portraying an actual stewardess, Cheryl Fioravante, with the double-entendre tagline “I’m Cheryl. Fly me.” More women were featured in the “Fly Me” ads, and the airline even named individual planes for stewardesses to reinforce the theme. This led to a protest at airline headquarters by the stewardesses and the National Organization for Women with signs that read, “Go Fly Yourself.”  

Braniff devised a kind of in-flight burlesque where stewardesses had to change into six different progressively skimpier outfits during long-distance flights. The ad promoting this had another double-entendre headline: “Introducing the Air Strip … brought to you by Braniff International, who believes that even an airline hostess should look like a girl.”

Southwest, which used Love Field in Dallas, boasted, “We Make Love Eighty Times a Day.” Air France ran an ad asking, “Have you ever done it the French way?” Continental adopted the slogan “We really move our tails for you.” As late as the mid-1970s, Continental stewardesses were ordered to kiss all male passengers on the cheek as they departed the plane. As Nell McShane Wulfhart writes in her definitive history, The Great Stewardess Rebellion, “Many of the men would swivel their faces around at the last second to catch the stewardess on the lips.”

The ideal of Barbie, created in 1959, and the ideal stewardess were products of the same era and culture. There was even a Braniff Barbie, with four different outfits.

As early as the 1940s, some airlines had introduced male stewards and pursers, who were paid better and not subjected to height, weight, marriage, or age restrictions. In principle, all of this became illegal with the passage of the 1963 Equal Pay Act and more emphatically with the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But neither act was self-executing, and the airlines fought to keep the age, weight, and marriage restrictions that applied only to women. Every single one of these offensive practices was reversed by the flight attendants, either via collective bargaining or through litigation.

In the class action case of Sprogis v. United Air Lines, a federal district court in 1970 held that Mary Sprogis, terminated by United in June 1966 when the airline learned she was married, had been illegally fired and was entitled to reinstatement and back pay. United appealed, claiming that marital status was a bona fide occupational qualification under the Civil Rights Act. In 1971, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals found for Sprogis and settled the marriage issue once and for all. United had to pay some $33 million in back pay and reinstate any of the 475 flight attendants terminated for marriage who wanted their jobs back.

It took another lawsuit, by Celio Diaz, for the courts to establish, in 1971, that men could apply to be flight attendants. Diaz had been turned down by Pan Am, for being the wrong sex. For a time, the airlines used the awkward terms “steward” and “stewardess” but eventually settled on “flight attendants.”

As late as 1968, Pan Am was actually tightening weight limits, and summarily firing any female flight attendant who was deemed overweight. That was finally ended by a mix of litigation and collective bargaining. Likewise the age limits.

Not until 1981 did the Supreme Court hold, in a class action lawsuit brought by Mary Laffey, a flight attendant employed by Northwest, that pay differentials for male and female cabin attendants doing the same jobs violated both the Civil Rights Act and the Equal Pay Act. Rather than accepting the decision, Northwest found reasons to appeal on a technicality, and the case was finally settled in 1984, when a three-judge appellate panel, made up of Robert Bork, Kenneth Starr, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, no less, awarded flight attendants $63 million in back pay.

AIRLINE DEREGULATION, ENACTED IN 1978, made the collective-bargaining climate that much more arduous. Previously, regulation of routes and fares guaranteed the airlines a fixed rate of return. So there was little to be gained by hammering down wages, because any savings could result in a downward adjustment of permissible fares to hold the profit margin constant. Most airlines opted for good labor relations. But with deregulation, the skies became a free-for-all.

At first, new entrants promised better service and lower fares. But smaller new airlines were either forced out of business by fare wars or acquired by larger airlines. The industry oscillated between the ruinous competition that regulation had been devised to prevent, and predatory unregulated concentration. All of the major carriers used bankruptcies to shed debts and cut costs. According to Ganesh Sitaraman’s new book, Why Flying Is Miserable: And How to Fix It, there have been 189 bankruptcy filings since deregulation. When airlines emerged from bankruptcy, one prime casualty was invariably steep cuts in flight attendant wages, benefits, and working conditions.

So just as the unions were triumphing over grotesque sexism, they were losing crucial leverage to defend their members’ economic condition. Ronald Reagan set the hostile, anti-labor tone of his era when one of his first acts was to break the 1981 strike of air traffic controllers and destroy their union, PATCO.

The 1970s and ’80s were also the era of corporate raiding, and airlines were convenient targets. A corporate raider profits by overpaying to gain control of a company, using borrowed money, and then viciously cutting costs by slashing wages, laying off workers, and gutting pension funds, all the while paying himself exorbitant fees out of operating income, and piling the debt onto the balance sheet of the target company.

In 1985, Carl Icahn, one of the most notorious corporate raiders, got control of TWA, whose flight attendants were then represented by an independent union. Icahn took the company private in 1988, gaining $469 million in personal profit but adding $539.7 million in debt to TWA’s balance sheet. He put the company through Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1992. After Icahn exited, TWA went into bankruptcy twice more, in 1995 and again in 2001, after which TWA was sold to American Airlines. Along the way, bases in Pittsburgh and St. Louis were closed, and profitable transatlantic routes were sold.

The Icahn takeover was a catastrophe for TWA’s 6,000 flight attendants. After Icahn became chairman of the airline in 1985, he demanded steep concessions, including wage cuts of 22 percent and work rule changes to save TWA another 22 percent. To add insult to injury, the wage cuts demanded of the mostly male mechanics totaled only 15 percent, on the premise that female flight attendants were “secondary” earners.  

Most flight attendants are only paid after the airplane doors close, despite time spent checking in passengers and stowing luggage.  (The American Prospect)

In 1986, the union called a strike. Icahn hired permanent strike replacements and was able to break the union. Thousands of flight attendants lost their jobs. Some were eventually hired back but at much reduced pay. It was in the aftermath of the TWA debacle that AFA came up with the CHAOS strategy.

CHAOS was launched in 1993 to deal with a protracted contract dispute with Alaska Airlines. The airline was enjoying record profits but was stonewalling the union. Negotiations had dragged on for nearly three years.

Unlike most labor-management disputes, which are covered by the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act), unions in the airline industry are governed by the 1926 Railway Labor Act. That earlier law was passed to reduce the incidence of crippling strikes in a vital transportation sector, and was extended to the airlines in the 1930s.

Being subject to the Railway Labor Act rather than the NLRA has its pluses and minuses. We saw one drawback just last year, when Congress stepped in to block a freight rail strike, as it can do under the law. But one big plus is that in the event of a contract impasse, either side can request mediation by the National Mediation Board. If mediation fails to produce a settlement, the mediator can release the company to impose work rules and the union is free to call a strike.

Due to a quirk in the law, the strike need not involve all workers. Leaders of AFA realized that they were permitted to devise intermittent surprise labor actions—a few workers strategically walking off the job in a fashion guaranteed to maximize disruption, at minimal risk to most members. “Nobody had ever used the intermittent strike provision of the Railway Labor Act before,” Nelson says. Thus was born CHAOS.

In 1993, deliberate media publicity about the union’s new tactic and its disruptive potential was enough to cut Alaska bookings by 20 percent even before a single flight attendant walked off, according to Nelson. Alaska took the union to court. But a federal district court in Washington state ruled that intermittent striking is permitted under the Railway Labor Act. The ruling also prohibited the airline from imposing any discipline—including firing—for engaging in intermittent strike activity.

“We created what we called the guts list, of flight attendants willing to risk being fired for walking off the job during boarding,” says Sandra Morrow, who led the L.A. local of Alaska Airlines workers at the time of the first CHAOS action and still serves on the Alaska negotiating committee. The first CHAOS strike took place at Sea-Tac in August 1993, when three flight attendants left an Alaska Airlines flight as passengers began boarding. This was followed four days later when attendants walked off the last Alaska flight out of Las Vegas. In September, AFA targeted five flights simultaneously in the San Francisco Bay area.

The 24 striking flight attendants all were summarily fired. But Alaska could not withstand the chaos and the passenger loss of confidence. It soon caved. So did AirTran, US Airways, America West, and Midwest Express, on the eve of threatened CHAOS strikes. Meanwhile, all the flight attendants got their jobs back as part of the Alaska settlement.

TODAY, ALASKA AIRLINES IS ONCE AGAIN a prime union target. The airline is making record profits and is on track for net earnings of $1 billion in 2023. It plans to spend between $75 million and $100 million this year on stock buybacks, but flight attendants haven’t had a contract with a real raise since 2014.

The sexism continues. The company considers the (nearly all male) pilots in short supply and the pool of (mostly female) potential flight attendants almost limitless. Alaska pilots were granted a 23 percent raise as part of this year’s contract, plus another 11 percent “snap up” to put them on an equal footing with the industry’s best-paid pilots at Delta and American.

Not only is Alaska refusing to offer flight attendants anything comparable, but the airline wants a giveback in the form of a longer standard workday, known as a duty day. Under the current contract, a flight attendant must receive premium pay if she is scheduled for more than 10.5 hours a day. Alaska wants to extend that to 11 or 12 hours.

Another issue in the Alaska negotiations and others is what’s known as boarding pay. “In most airline contracts,” explains Nelson, “we get paid only from the time the door closes to time it opens,” even though flight attendants have to be at the airport well before departure time and be on the plane to manage passenger boarding, and check for safety equipment. The unpaid time can easily exceed an hour on each flight when there are delays, plus more unpaid time at the airport waiting to board. In this round of negotiations with both Alaska and United, the union is demanding not just boarding pay, but compensation for ground time as well.  

Delta, the only large non-union carrier, recently agreed to pay for boarding time as part of its strategy of matching or bettering union scales, as a union avoidance mechanism. As if to taunt union carriers, a Delta vice president wrote in her memo to flight attendants, “Our new boarding pay component—an industry first—further recognizes how important your role is on board to ensuring a welcoming, safe and on-time start to each flight and for each customer.” Of course, without unions at competing airlines, Delta would never have been provoked into offering such a perk.

At Alaska, the issue of boarding pay and ground pay is connected to another issue of so-called commuter employees. All of Alaska’s five West Coast bases are in high-cost cities. According to Sandra Morrow, “40 percent of flight attendants are commuters. They can’t afford to live where they are based.” Commuting time getting to work from other metro areas on other airlines, understandably, is not compensated; but neither is the time waiting around the airport. The airline has rigid rules that the union wants relaxed causing flight attendants to be punished if they report late due to the fault of another airline, which forces workers to arrive early and incur still more unpaid time.

The union has requested mediation under the Railway Labor Act. The mediation process, which includes a 30-day “cooling-off period,” still has a few months to run before the union can be released by the mediator to pursue a strike against Alaska Airlines, selective or otherwise.

In August, flight attendants picketed Alaska at six West Coast airports, from San Diego to Anchorage. They were joined by thousands of workers from more than a dozen other unions. The picket signs read, “Pay us or CHAOS.”

THE COMPLEX EARLY HISTORY OF ORGANIZING stewardesses, combined with the saga of startups, bankruptcies, and mergers, has left a somewhat fragmented union structure. AFA is the largest of the flight attendant unions, with close to 50,000 members. It was once larger; Northwest workers were represented by AFA, but after non-union Delta absorbed Northwest, those attendants lost their union representation. In 2003, AFA became an autonomous unit of the Communications Workers of America, whose other units represent some 20,000 airline ground workers.

The more than 26,000 flight attendants at American have their own independent union, which was affiliated with the heavily male Transport Workers Union. The union at American went through a parallel odyssey to that of AFA, fighting rampant sexism in the industry and the parent union, and left the TWU in 1977 to become the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA). The TWU organized and still represents the 15,000 flight attendants at Southwest, and represented Eastern Airlines attendants before that union went broke. And the Teamsters represent flight attendants at several commuter airlines.

There have been occasional talks about a possible merger, but none is in the offing. AFA and APFA display comparable militance and have cordial relations. The fragmentation doesn’t seem to harm the bargaining power of flight attendants, though it has led to some jurisdictional spats over organizing campaigns. Unlike in industries such as auto or steel, there is no history of targeted, industry-wide pattern bargaining.

Next year will be a pivotal moment for the flight attendants. The airlines are finally very profitable again after a two-decade roller coaster.

Eight days after the September 11 attacks, as bookings fell by 96 percent, United laid off 20 percent of its employees, and furloughed another 2,300 flight attendants in late 2002, when the airline declared bankruptcy, which gutted AFA’s pension and health plans. At United, the average annual salary for a flight attendant was over $44,000 in 2002, but under $36,000 in 2007. The union took a 9 percent pay cut in 2003 and another 9.5 percent cut in 2005.

The Great Recession was another body blow. But the airlines returned to profitability after 2011, with the four largest carriers averaging a total of about $12 billion in annual profits by the middle of the decade. It was time for the flight attendants to get their share.

In 2022, more than 180,000 flights were canceled, which cascades through the system.  (Jonathan Brady/AP Photo  //  The American Prospect)

But COVID blew those plans to hell. Three years later, the flight attendants are back at the table, facing a flush set of airlines. In 2023, the International Air Transport Association projects that industry profits will be around $10 billion.

American Airlines’ stalled contract negotiations with APFA parallel those of airlines represented by the larger AFA. Between 2013 and 2019, when it was restraining worker wages, American issued stock buybacks totaling $12.9 billion, more than its total payroll.

On August 30, APFA announced that members had voted overwhelmingly to call a strike against American if stalled contract negotiations do not improve. “American’s Flight Attendants have not received cost-of-living increases or any other quality-of-life improvements, even as they played an essential part in keeping American in the skies both during and after the pandemic,” APFA president Julie Hedrick said in a statement.

Contract negotiations are complicated by several perverse industry practices that do not lend themselves to the usual collective-bargaining subjects of wages, hours, or work rules.

Since COVID, there have been intensified bouts of air rage, in which angry passengers take out frustrations on flight attendants. A customer may be furious over long flight delays; fights break out over seat backs that passengers invariably slam into each others’ knees. During the pandemic, flight attendants also bore the brunt of passenger resentment for enforcing mask rules.

The Federal Aviation Administration reports that more than 9,000 “unruly passenger” incidents have occurred since the start of 2021. Diane Tucker also blames the influence of Donald Trump. “Passengers who might have found some inconveniences merely annoying now feel it’s OK to be belligerent,” she says.

The root cause of much passenger anger is shortsighted industry profit maximization strategies that mash seat rows closer together to squeeze in more customers and push capacity to its limits, leading to cancellations and long delays in cases of mechanical and computer problems or weather delays.

It is compounded by the airlines’ strategy of short-staffing. “We used to be staffed at between 25 and 50 percent over the minimum staffing requirements,” Nelson says. “Today they’re running all the flights with minimum staffing and minimum planes. So when a flight cancels, there is no give.” In 2022, more than 180,000 flights were canceled.

The airlines’ sheer cheapness leads to other problems that frustrate flight attendants. At United, when delays or cancellations occur, flight attendants need to call a phone number to learn their reassignment or whether to go home. United doesn’t have enough schedulers to process the calls, so flight attendants end up waiting interminably on hold and everything backs up. “I might be sitting in Chicago and my flight is delayed,” says Diane Tucker. “I’m on the phone trying to call in, but I can’t reach anybody.”

You would think all of this would be automated. But the requirement of a live call is a relic of an earlier contract requirement intended to protect workers. As Nelson explains, “Airline officials used to leave messages for flight attendants through the pilots or gate agents, but signals would get crossed.” The system of requiring direct contact between the scheduler and the flight attendant worked well enough, according to Nelson, until United failed to keep an adequate staff of schedulers at a time when more and more flights were getting delayed or canceled. “The company has screwed itself here,” Nelson says.

In a more benign bargaining climate, with management less bent on short-term profit maximization, the union and the company would work something out. But rather than automating or hiring more schedulers, United’s proposed remedy is to extend the number of hours that a flight attendant has to hang around the airport waiting for an assignment from the current four hours to six, a nonstarter for the union.

In order to pursue durable gains in earnings and work rules, the flight attendants find themselves in the position of having to challenge the industry’s core business model, which harms workers and passengers alike. This is far from the usual stuff of collective bargaining.

IN ADDITION TO THE CURRENT NEGOTIATIONS with United, Alaska, and other airlines, AFA’s other major project is to finally organize the one longtime holdout, Delta. It’s been a long-term goal that would increase the union’s membership by more than half.

In the Delta campaign, three unions that have often been rivals over jurisdiction have agreed to a joint campaign. AFA is working to organize flight attendants. The Teamsters are organizing mechanics, and the Machinists are targeting ramp workers such as baggage handlers. This is a historic first that maximizes the energy among the workforce and the pressure on Delta.

Another plus is that when Delta absorbed Northwest in 2008, it also took on several thousand flight attendants who used to be represented by AFA and appreciated the benefits of a union. So the organizing drive begins with that pro-union core, who can organize other workers.

The Delta campaign is by far the largest current organizing drive against a single employer, according to Nelson. AFA has been circulating cards for two years, and the number of signed cards keeps growing. Under the Railway Labor Act, it’s harder for management to pursue a strategy of firing pro-union workers, and this would also be at odds with Delta’s benign image.

Unlike the fragmented efforts to organize fast-food or Starbucks workers in very small units, or immense anti-union corporations like Amazon or Walmart, the Delta effort has a real shot at succeeding. One reason is that Delta is the holdout in an industry that is heavily organized, with experienced unions in all the airline professions. The other three major carriers—United, American, and Southwest—are more than 80 percent unionized. At Delta, unions represent barely more than 20 percent, mainly pilots.

Delta has relied on benign paternalism to keep out unions. But without a union, the terms of employment can be changed on management whim. Delta laid off thousands of workers during the pandemic and its recent hires. As the airline has staffed back up, younger workers tend to be more pro-union.

“These flight attendants are watching the Starbucks workers,” says Nelson. “They’re hearing about Amazon. Unions are popular, and it helps that the president talks about unions. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen such a fertile environment for organizing.”

[Robert Kuttner is co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect, and professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School.]

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