Delta Air Lines employees, including thousands in Minnesota, voted this fall in a series of major union-organizing elections to determine whether they will maintain the carrier’s non-union legacy or adopt the union representation enjoyed by workers at Northwest Airlines, which Delta absorbed last year. In all of the elections, Delta employees narrowly rejected union representation, according to the National Mediation Board, which oversees organizing elections in the airline industry.
Both unions seeking to organize Delta workers – the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA and the International Association of Machinists – have filed complaints with the NMB that cast doubt on the fairness of the elections and the legitimacy of their outcomes.
If the election results stand, however, they will have major implications – not only for Delta workers, but for the Flight Attendants, the Machinists and the broader labor community in Minnesota as well.
For the time being, Delta workers are hanging onto the status quo – a two-tiered shop where the company continues to honor most of the terms of former Northwest employees’ contracts – while union organizers are holding out hope for a second round of elections, free from employer interference.
“Right now we’re hanging on to the terms of our contract without a grievance procedure,” said Ken Hooker, president of Twin Cities-based Machinists Local 1833. “The company is waiting until everything is resolved, until the NMB makes a ruling.
“We’re hoping to get another shot at the apple.”
Similar tactics, similar election results
Of the three largest classifications of workers to vote in union-organizing elections this fall, the Flight Attendants were first to vote. Results announced Nov. 3 showed more than 18,000 flight attendants cast votes, with just 51 percent voting to reject AFA-CWA representation.
Delta’s 13,000 baggage handlers followed the flight attendants to the polls, rejecting the Machinists by a 53-47 percent split in results announced Nov. 18.
With momentum for union representation stalling, Delta’s 12,500 passenger-service employees predictably voted down Machinists membership in election results announced earlier this month.
A small group of clerical workers at Delta were still voting on Machinists representation when this edition of The Union Advocate went to press.
Both the AFA-CWA and the Machinists accuse Delta of running an illegal campaign to intimidate and harass its employees into voting against union representation.
In official complaints filed with the NMB, workers detail how Delta management repeatedly meddled in the supposedly secret-ballot election, with tactics ranging from surveillance to bribery.
According to the complaints, managers in some Delta hubs – although not in the Twin Cities – urged workers to cast their ballots on company-controlled work computers that could track whether they clicked on the NMB’s online voting site.
“Anytime you logged into their system on that web page, (Delta’s computer) copies that page,” Hooker said. “Delta is going to know exactly who voted and how. They can do that in a heartbeat.”
Additionally, the complaints allege the company lied about the union in anti-union literature and closed-door meetings with workers, and supervisors placed phone calls to workers at home, urging them to vote “no.”
The nail in the coffin, Hooker said, came when Delta doled out raises to its non-union staff just weeks before voting began.
“Because (Northwest) people had a contract, Delta said, ‘You’ve got a contract, so we can’t do that for you people,'” Hooker said. “They were using that as a wedge device. They put that money out there and told people that if the union gets in you’re not going to see that money until there’s a negotiated contract.”
Patricia Friend, president of the AFA-CWA, called it the largest anti-union campaign in history.
“Delta and Northwest flight attendants deserve the opportunity to freely participate in an election without being intimidated by management and heavy-handed efforts to keep them from gaining a voice,” she said. “We now call on the NMB to conduct an exhaustive investigation of these charges and hold Delta executives accountable for their actions.”
Holding out hope
Although the AFA-CWA and the Machinists vow to keep fighting, the election results, if upheld by the NMB, mean major changes ahead for former Northwest workers and the local labor community.
Pensions, seniority, overtime, work rules and grievance protections all hang in the balance for former Northwest workers. Delta prides itself on maintaining a “direct relationship” with its workers, free from third-party interference.
What that relationship really means, Hooker said, is workers can be fired at any time, for any reason.
“All of a sudden you’re an at-will employee,” he said. “We’ve already had a person escorted off the property at MSP, and that’s just the start. All those things we, as members of unions, had for years and maybe took for granted – now all that is gone.
“You have a bad day out there, you may not have a job.”
The labor community, meanwhile, stands to lose membership and a significant part of its heritage if the election results are upheld. The Machinists, in particular, are fighting for survival, with an open organizing campaign at AirTran and an ongoing dispute with the Teamsters over representation of workers at United and Continental, set to merge next year.
Local 1833, chartered in 1947 to represent Northwest workers, would lose all but 150 of its 4,200 members, a devastating blow to a local union that once ranked as the Machinists’ largest in the country.
“It’s very challenging,” Hooker said. “We take a lot of pride in our union, and we take a lot of pride in this local. Our members have not been afraid of stepping up to the plate to help, to volunteer in the community, to represent the face of the IAM in this community. We participate in the union community as well.
“But like anything else, we have to go through this, to deal with this, but think positively that we’re going to get other opportunities. Hopefully, we are going to bounce back.”
Michael Moore edits The Union Advocate, the official publication of the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation.