By Don McIntosh
At a time when just 6.7 percent of America’s private sector workers belong to a union, passenger airlines are one of the few remaining heavily-unionized industries. Three of the top four carriers are at or above 80 percent unionized. Their union contracts set an industry standard and give workers job security and good enough pay and benefits that they can enjoy a comfortable middle class standard of living. For example, under a collective bargaining agreement ratified in August at United Airlines, flight attendant base pay starts at $26.68 an hour and tops out at $62 an hour after 13 years of service.
Airlines right now are taking in record profits — $24 billion industry-wide in the last four calendar quarters. The profit surge is made possible by the fact that fuel prices plunged a few years ago, but ticket prices stayed about the same. That’s just what you’d expect in an oligopoly where just four airlines control 69 percent of total market share and the top seven airlines have 82 percent of the market, according to the latest numbers from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
But they’re not all the same: Two of the top seven have worked hard to keep unions down and out — Delta and JetBlue.
Delta, the nation’s third largest carrier, has long fought to remain nonunion. After Northwest Airlines merged into Delta, Northwest flight attendants and ground crews lost their unions. Just one-sixth of Delta workers today are union-represented — pilots and dispatchers. Delta does have a regional subsidiary, Envoy Air, where flight attendants, pilots and dispatchers are union. And workers at a Pennsylvania jet fuel refinery owned by another Delta subsidiary are represented by United Steel Workers.
Meanwhile, JetBlue, the #2 low-cost carrier after Southwest, has never yet signed a union contract. After two failed efforts to unionize, Jetblue pilots succeeded in winning union representation in April 2014 by a 74 percent margin. But the union has yet to reach agreement over a first contract with JetBlue.