20,000 flight attendants at Delta Air Lines begin union vote


On the first day of their union vote, Delta Air Lines flight attendants encountered turbulence when they were told they had too many people at the transit center where crews arrive at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Bearing signs reading “Respect” and “Opportunity,” pro-union workers had been greeting their colleagues as they stepped off the bus from the employee parking lot. Their effort skidded to a halt when airport police, on orders from the Metropolitan Airports Commission, arrived to disperse the group of about a dozen people. 

Even though they had a permit to assemble, the flight attendants didn’t argue, but re-grouped outside the main terminal where they held up signs and waved to arriving passengers.

“If we can’t be at the transit center, that will not stop us from educating and organizing,” said Renee Foss, spokesperson for AFA-CWA, the Association of Flight Attendants, which is part of the Communications Workers of America.

Wednesday was the first day flight attendants could vote whether or not they wish to be represented by a union. With 20,000 potential members, it is one of the largest union elections in years and represents a pivotal moment for workers in the airline industry.

Flight attendants organize
Flight attendant Leah Myers (above) exercised her First Amendment right to communicate with her co-workers until airport police (below) forced the group to disperse, even though they had a permit.
flight attendants stopped by cops

Quality of life
“We are working really hard to keep union representation to maintain our quality of life,” said Amy Smith, Delta Air Lines flight attendant, passing out information about the flight attendants’ organizing campaign at the Minnesota State Fair earlier this month. Smith worked 15 years for unionized Northwest Air Lines before it was purchased by larger non-union Delta.

After Delta acquired Northwest in 2008, the former Northwest flight attendants continued working under their old Northwest contract.

Flight attendants are the first to take a union vote since the merger. The election, which runs through Nov. 3, is being conducted by Internet and telephone under the supervision of the National Mediation Board, which administers the federal Railway Labor Act. That’s the labor-management law governing workplaces in the transportation industries.

The campaign to win the vote by the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA spans the globe from Amsterdam to Tokyo. And the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport – a former hub and headquarters for Northwest – is at the center of the campaign, reported Bill McGlashen, assistant to AFA-CWA President Pat Friend.

“We’re actually running a world operation right here,” McGlashen said. “We have 2,000 flight attendants who are based in Minneapolis,” he said. That’s 10 percent of Delta’s 20,000 flight attendants, he noted, and “there’s a lot of key leadership that’s based here,” he noted. “It’s a central location we’re staging everything out of,” he said.

McGlashen said hundreds of AFA-CWA members based here are involved in visibility work in the airport parking lot, speaking to co-workers at crew lounges and staffing a phone bank in Bloomington.

“Minneapolis is the key operations center for the entire world-wide campaign,” he said. “We’re going to have get-out-the-vote efforts from Amsterdam to Tokyo and all in between.”

McGlashen noted that flight attendants at the former Northwest Air Lines became union 63 years ago. Their negotiated wages and benefits set a standard for the industry. “This is really a fight to keep that,” he said, and to regain ground lost to concessions in recent years.

“Pre-merger Northwest flight attendants are a key component of the vote here,” he said. “They’re a key component of the total vote.”

New voting procedures
A June 1, 2010, change in National Mediation Board rules will give the union a better chance of winning the vote than in the past.

Under the old rules, a majority of all eligible voters was required for the union to prevail. If someone didn’t vote, it was counted as no vote. Under the new rules, “it’s decided by a majority of those who vote,” McGlashen noted.

AFA-CWA should have won two prior elections at the old Delta, gaining landslide support, but – under the old rules – the union fell short of absolute majority of all eligible flight attendants, so it lost those earlier votes.

“Delta and Northwest flight attendants, who have worked so hard and waited so patiently, have seized the moment and for the first time in history, will participate in a union representation election governed by democratic voting rules,” said AFA-CWA President Pat Friend.

National Mediation Board rulings also are setting the stage for a similar vote for the Machinists union by 20,000 Delta fleet service workers, reservations agents and others, although a voting period has not yet been announced.

Representatives of the Machinists and the American Federation of Government Employees, which is organizing Transportation Security Administration workers, expressed dismay at the way the flight attendants were treated Wednesday when they were forced to disperse from the transit center.

“By what authority does the MAC [Metropolitan Airports Commission] take away my First Amendment right to assemble and to support my brothers and sisters?” asked Terry Meadows, AFGE national organizer.

Unions at the airport consistently have problems getting the access they need to communicate with members, said Kip Hedges, chair of the Ramp Grievance Committee for the Machinists, which is part of a coalition of all unions at Minneapolis-St. Paul International.

“One of the things our union coalition at the airport wants to take on is democratic rights at the airport – because we have none,” Hedges said.

This story includes reporting by Jenny Brown of Labor Notes and Press Associates.