32,000 Delta/Northwest airline workers vote on unionization


By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

What happens when a union airline merges with a nonunion airline? Non-union workers get a shot at union representation, and union workers run the risk of losing it.

That’s happening now with flight attendants, ramp workers, ticket agents and others at Northwest and Delta airlines, which merged in late 2008. Pilots at both companies were union, but Delta was otherwise nonunion, whereas Northwest had been union for 65 years. Northwest’s ramp workers and ticket agents belong to the International Association of Machinists (IAM), and its flight attendants are members of Association of Flight Attendants (AFA). Union contracts remain in effect — for the former Northwest workers only — until the merged groups vote over the next several months whether to unionize.

All told, about 32,000 workers in four separate bargaining units will decide whether or not to be union.

Delta, which was the world’s largest airline until last month’s merger of United and Continental, is campaigning heavily to persuade them to vote “no.” Asked how much the company will spend to fight unionization, CEO Richard Anderson reportedly replied, “as much as it takes.” Delta is calling the campaign Decision 2010, and is bombarding workers with anti-union messages.

Portland resident Jim Laird, a Delta flight attendant, said he has received at least three glossy mailers, a voters pamphlet, and a DVD in the mail. At work, break rooms are hung with large anti-union banners. Management representatives campaign against the union at display tables. Even the computers that workers clock in on are set up to display anti-union messages.

“It’s everywhere you look,” Laird said. The non-stop anti-union campaign is infuriating to pro-union workers like Laird, and intimidating to those who are less sure about the union, he said.

Flight attendants are the first group of Delta workers to vote on unionizing. Voting began Sept. 29, by mail and online, and results will be announced Nov. 3. About 7,500 Delta flight attendants are working under AFA’s contract with Northwest, and this election determines whether they lose their union and contract, or gain 13,500 union sisters and brothers.

Then three groups of workers will vote on whether to be members of IAM. About 14,000 Delta baggage handlers — including 4,700 former Northwest employees — started voting Oct. 14 and continue through Nov. 18. About 700 “stock and stores” workers — including 240 from Northwest — vote Oct. 25 to Nov. 22. And a final group of about 16,000 customer service and reservations workers — including 4,800 former Northwest union members — will vote in an election still to be scheduled.

[Northwest’s aircraft maintenance workers were represented by an independent union, which decided to fold rather than campaign to represent the larger group.]

Union victory at Delta could also be important for the wider labor movement: Half of Delta’s cabin crews are based in Atlanta, which is in the heart of the nonunion, “right-to-work” South.

For Delta flight attendants, the struggle to unionize has lasted over a decade. This will be their third unionization vote in eight years. But the rules have changed.

Airline workers unionize under the terms of the Railway Labor Act, not the National Labor Relations Act which covers most private-sector workers. In the past, airline workers wouldn’t win union recognition unless an absolute majority of workers voted “yes” — not just a majority of those who vote.

Because of that rule, during past union campaigns Delta managers worked to suppress voter turnout, and literally encouraged workers to tear up their ballots with the slogan, “Give a rip. Don’t click. Don’t dial.”

But last year, President Barack Obama added two pro-union appointees to the three-member National Mediation Board, which governs labor-management relations in airlines and railroads: Linda Puchala, a former AFA president; and Harry Hoglander, a former executive vice president of the Air Line Pilots Association. In May, the National Mediation Board changed the rule to be more in line with normal democratic procedures. Now every vote will count, and un-cast ballots will not be counted as “no” votes. Airlines sued unsuccessfully to stop the change.

For flight attendants, a union could help them secure a decent living, a family-friendly schedule, and health insurance benefits that cover dependents. Bill McGlashen, executive assistant to the AFA international president, said workers want a chance to bargain back the pay and benefits they lost after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and during the Chapter 11 bankruptcies of Delta and Northwest.

“They took significant pay and benefit cuts, and they need an avenue to restore that. They can’t go on an unwritten promise from management.”

AFA is campaigning with the slogan of “opportunity, dignity, respect” and has its own DVD and an e-mail network. An “AFA at Delta” Facebook group had 1,900 members as of Oct. 11. On an AFA phone hotline, workers record statements as to why they voted yes, which are then played on the the campaign web site, deltaafa.org.

Like AFA, IAM is waging a vigorous campaign, said IAM spokesperson Joe Tiberi — including television ads in Memphis and Atlanta, two major Delta hubs [You can see them at the campaign web site, jointheiam.org.]

Tiberi said IAM is working to challenge anti-union stereotypes among workers who haven’t been in a union, for example, the idea that unionization makes an airline uncompetitive. Southwest Airlines is a good counter to that argument, Tiberi said: It’s almost entirely union, and is one of the highest paid, yet also is among the most profitable while still maintaining lower fares than most.

For Delta workers seeking to join IAM, retirement security is an issue, Tiberi said. Both Northwest and Delta froze their pension plans, meaning no new benefits are being accrued. But Northwest joined IAM’s multi-employer pension plan, so those workers have a growing “defined benefit” pension, as long as they remain union.

Tiberi is asking union members who fly Delta in the next month to talk with ticket agents and show support for their campaign to join IAM. Likewise, AFA spokesperson Corey Caldwell encourages union members to talk to Delta flight attendants and let them know that there’s public support for their campaign.

“The time has come for us to have a say,” says Laird, the Delta flight attendant. “In the big picture, this is about gaining more self-respect.”


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