Flanked by supporters from organized labor and elected officials, the leaders of the International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers vowed to unionize the world’s largest air carrier, Delta Airlines.
Union members gathered Sunday for a solidarity rally in what promises to be a long and difficult campaign to win representation for ground workers at Delta, which has been non-union except for its pilots. Last year, it merged with Northwest Airlines, where nearly all 31,000 employees were covered by a union contract. The workforce at the combined carrier totals 75,000.
“We’re going to win this campaign . . . and we’re going to get justice for working people,” said R. Thomas Buffenbarger, international president of the IAMAW.
“It’s important to understand that this fight is a fight for every transportation union in America,” said Robert Roach, Jr., general vice president for transportation of the IAMAW.
Under the federal Railway Labor Act, a majority of the employees who would be covered by a union contract – not just a majority who vote – is needed for the union to win. The Machinists face the additional challenge of reaching workers spread at airports across the country, with many of the Delta employees concentrated in the south.
Without a union, workers at the newly merged airline will have no voice in their pay, benefits or working conditions, the labor leaders said. Roach noted that in testimony before Congress, Delta CEO Richard Anderson said he would eliminate the union pension plan, increase employee health insurance premiums and undermine the seniority system.
Flight attendant Rene Foss – a member of the Association of Flight Attendants, which also is organizing at Delta – put it this way: “We can stand together and keep our unions and our rights or we can stand alone and keep our fingers crossed.”
Support from elected officials
A bevy of elected officials turned out to support the Machinists in their campaign. They included Al Franken, U.S. Representatives Keith Ellison and Betty McCollum, gubernatorial candidate Mark Dayton and state Representatives Frank Hornstein and Leon Lillie. All donned blue Machinists’ t-shirts emblazoned with “Union Strong” in white letters on the front.
Ellison said he and McCollum would wear their shirts on the plane when they flew back to Washington, D.C., Monday. “We’re going to wear them through security, we’re going to wear them in the baggage claim,” he proclaimed.
Organizing campaigns at Delta and other corporations are nothing less than a struggle to preserve the middle class, Ellison said. “The American people are counting on us to restore their quality of life.”
McCollum, whose mother was a union flight attendant, urged those gathered at the rally to tell others “what a difference a union makes. It made a difference in my life.”
Franken was declared the winner of the November 2008 race for U.S. Senate in Minnesota, but is still waiting to be seated while opponent Norm Coleman files legal appeals. Franken said he is eager to go to work and “ask tough questions about airline mergers” like the one between Delta and Northwest.
“Will there be real competition between airlines or will there be mega-carriers that set their own rates and do whatever they want to labor?” he asked. “We’re not going to let that happen.”
State labor leaders, including Minnesota AFL-CIO President Ray Waldron, pledged their support to the Machinists.
Eliot Seide, director of AFSCME Council 5, said the state’s largest public employee union stands ready to send member-organizers to aid the organizing effort.
“Your fight is our fight,” Seide said.
The Machinists have not said when they will call for a union election. “We’re going to vote when we’re ready to vote,” Roach declared. But union officials have indicated it’s likely to occur in late summer or early fall.
Buffenbarger said the union is not intimidated by the fact that many Delta workers are located in Atlanta and other areas that have long been regarded as tough to unionize.
The Machinists union, he noted, was organized in Atlanta in 1888.
“The union was born in the south because railroad workers had enough of the plantation mentality that governed their lives,” Buffenbarger said. “We know we can take on this fight – and we will win this fight.”