Flight attendants and ramp workers at Delta Air Lines have an important question to ask themselves – could joining a trade union improve their pay and conditions or make them worse off? This isn’t a new question – the fight to unionize Delta’s flight attendants has been going on for years and it’s been marred with controversy and cries of foul play along the way.
Some attempts to unionize have come closer than others. Unionization drives were rejected in both 2002 and 2008 and a separate attempt in 2010 was defeated by just 328 votes.
In 2015, there were accusations of fraud, with Delta claiming the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) had submitted fraudulent signatures in a bid to call another vote – the IAM fired back, accusing Delta of creating the fraud.
The latest contentious moment in this debate is, of course, Delta’s new anti-union publicity campaign that has drawn criticism from lawmakers and trade unions from around the world.
The posters, which Lori Bassani of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA) that represents crew at American Airlines describes as “shameful”, tell Delta’s workers that they would be better off spending $700 a year on buying a video games console instead of joining a union.
A raft of materials has been created alongside the posters to reinforce Delta’s overarching message which to put it simply is “better the devil you know”.
When times are good, that’s a fairly simple message to believe – after all, in February Delta paid out its second-highest profit sharing bonus of all time. For most flight attendants the bonus was equivalent to around 14% of their annual salary. Bonuses at Delta’s big unionized rivals trailed in comparison.
But that ignores the fact that even with regular pay rises, wages for the average Delta flight attendant are struggling to keep up with their peers at the likes of American Airlines and United Airlines. And what about when times become tough – as they invariably will?
Delta tells its flight attendants that a union isn’t the answer to these kinds of questions – a union-negotiated contract would take years to be signed-off they caution. And during that time, Delta’s hands would be tied – improvements would be delayed and wages could stagnate.
There’s not even a guarantee wages would rise with a union-negotiated contract. Nor can a union guarantee ending Delta’s controversial ‘Ready Reserves’ programme that can see workers furloughed without pay during irregular operations.
Some of this may be true, although claims that a union would ‘ruin’ Delta’s unique culture is perhaps disingenuous to say the least. Let’s be brutally honest – Delta doesn’t want its workers represented by a union because a non-unionized workforce is cheaper and offers the company greater flexibility. There’s nothing stopping a business having a great culture with unionized employees.
Union leaders meanwhile point to the many successes they’ve achieved at other airlines – as several Senators put in a letter to Delta chief executive Ed Bastion:
“Union jobs consistently come with better pay, access to high-quality healthcare, increased benefits, and a dignified retirement.”
Arguably, union jobs helped create America’s Middle Class, driving up wages for the average worker and driving down income inequality – That’s no coincidence, says Steven Greenhouse in a comment piece covered by CNN that income equality is actually getting worse as the number of union jobs fall.
And it’s not just about wages. As Bassani notes, she and her peers at American Airlines “know first-hand how important union representation is when it comes to fighting for better workplace conditions, pay, benefits and government issues.”
She says her union and many flight attendants are standing in solidarity with Delta workers in their efforts to improve the workplace – whether that will be with a union remains to be seen.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.