Delta Election Has Union Hopeful
By Ted Reed 09/28/10 - 10:47 AM EDT
ATLANTA (TheStreet) -- Pat Friend, who has been trying to unionize Delta(DAL_) for 15 years, likes to think she is getting somewhere.
Delta Air Lines Inc. DAL UPA long-awaited flight attendant union representation election at Delta will begin Wednesday, with voting to end November 3.
In 1996, Friend, the national president of the Association of Flight Attendants, convinced union leaders to create an organizing fund. That led to elections at Delta in 2002 and 2008. The first time, the AFA got 5,520 votes, or 29% of the bargaining unit. Nearly everyone who voted backed the union.
The second time, the NMB reported that 5,306 votes were cast, nearly all of which went to AFA.
That was 40% of the shrunken bargaining unit.
Then, in 2008, Delta merged with Northwest, which brought in 7,000 unionized flight attendants. Just looking at the numbers, one can conclude that Friend has reason for optimism in this fall's election, assuming that previous AFA backers at Delta are joined by a sufficient majority of the former Northwest flight attendants. Delta now has about 20,000 flight attendants.
When Friend talks to Northwest flight attendants, she says: "If I had not been working with these Delta flight attendants for all these years, you would be in big trouble right now. It would be very difficult to turn out sufficient yes votes to preserve your union representation. But I absolutely think this combined Delta group will be AFA when we count the votes."
Another factor in the union's favor, besides years of work, is that in May, the National Mediation Board altered a 75-year-old labor law rule. The change means that in union representation elections, the outcome will be based on the votes of a majority of the workers who participate -- rather than requiring a majority of eligible voters.
It used to be that unions had to wage "get out the vote" campaigns against democracy's most insidious opponent: apathy. Now the burden has shifted, Friend said, because now it is the company that must battle apathy.
Delta is not sitting still. Like all companies that battle unions, it has launched a charm offensive and is spending money to make its position known. Like the union, Delta has a strong case to make. Last week the company held a video cast session with CEO Richard Anderson and senior vice president of inflight services Joanne Smith, which was viewed by a live audience in Atlanta as well as flight attendants gathered to watch in four cities.
"This is probably the most important decision you will make as flight attendants in the course of your career at Delta," Anderson said. He argued that Delta provides better working conditions for its flight attendants than a negotiated Northwest contract, even though unionized employees pay dues of $43 a month. "The track record of the AFA has been quite poor when you look at what is obtained for [$43]," he said. Friend disputes this point, noting that Delta flight attendants do not even have a contract. "Whether it stays where it is, that's uncertain," she said. "Flight attendants have no control."
Delta Air Lines Inc. DAL Delta's values, which Anderson listed, include these: "We always tell the truth. We respect other people. We take care of each other. We beat the competition. We act with honesty. And we treat people the way we want to be treated." He said Delta executives are "servant leaders in the industry and we're here to serve you."
One indication of Delta's values, Anderson reminded, is that after the merger the carrier agreed to provide 15% of pre-tax profits and 15% of its stock to employees. Additionally, although the carrier lost billions of dollars in 2007 and 2008, it offered raises in both years. "There's a moral obligation to make this a good place to work," he said.
Not surprisingly, employees selected to ask questions during the broadcast seemed strongly committed to assuring a union defeat. One questioned whether the NMB would fairly count the ballots: Anderson assured that it would. Another said she was "the most distressed I have been in my entire career" by the possibility that Delta could be unionized. She said some of the advantages Delta flight attendants have could disappear in contract negotiations. "I do fly with people who want the union and who bring up picayune little things they expect the union to get for them," she added. She thought Delta could work harder to get the truth out, which no doubt came as a surprise to airline executives who are doing all they possibly can to be sure their story is told.
While numbers appear to favor the union, such elections sometimes hinge on enigmatic factors, especially since each voter brings a unique set of interests. For instance, it is widely felt that many Atlanta-based flight attendants have a cultural affinity for Delta, a symbol of Atlanta and the South for decades. But it is not necessarily so that all of the former Northwest flight attendants are AFA backers. In 2004, Northwest flight attendants left the Teamsters to form an independent union. The union struggled, and some flight attendants asked the AFA to organize them.
"Those individuals who started and led the independent movement were furious that AFA won," Friend said. "Now they are anti-AFA. It is stunning that some people, who supposedly are unionists, are willing to sacrifice union representation for revenge."
Because Obama Administration NMB appointees' altered the board's longstanding policy, the Delta election is being closed watched by labor advocates, labor opponents and the chattering class of the Washington Beltway. Friend said that does not really change things. "It increases the tension in this office, but as far as the flight attendants involved in the campaign, I don't think they are looking out," she said. "They are focused on what they are doing."
-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.