Delta faces stepped up union recruitment


Delta Air Lines Inc., on the heels of last month’s federal rule change making it easier for aviation workers to organize, is facing a stepped-up recruitment campaign by labor organizers.

While votes haven’t yet been scheduled, unions have set to work putting up information desks at airline-staff lounges and visiting employees at their homes to prepare for elections that could be held this summer. At stake are tens of thousands of flight attendants, ticket agents and baggage handlers at the world’s largest airline by traffic—and the last major U.S. carrier with less than half its staff covered by union contracts.

The high-stakes battle is being played across geographic and cultural fault lines, less than two years after Delta acquired Minneapolis-based Northwest Airlines. Northwest was only about half as large as Delta, but roughly 95% of its workers were unionized. Only about 15% of Delta’s pre-merger workforce was unionized, with many of its employees based in the south, where organizing efforts traditionally have struggled.

Richard Anderson, chief executive of the Atlanta-based carrier, recently accused union organizers of frightening employees’ families. Unions have accused management of intimidating employees and forcing flight attendants to squeeze into dresses that are too small.

“There was an initial clash of cultures, and the sense on the Delta side that ‘these Yankees’ were coming to take over,” said Patricia Friend, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents about 6,500 former Northwest attendants.

Union organizers have a smaller hill to climb after the National Mediation Board, the federal agency overseeing labor relations at airlines, ruled in May that unions can be formed if a majority of unionization votes are cast in their favor. That reverses a seven-decade industry practice of counting non-votes as no votes. Delta is mounting an aggressive legal challenge to the rule change, which is scheduled to go into effect at the end of June.

Although Delta and Northwest have merged, the airline’s non-unionized Delta workers and its unionized Northwest workers are working under separate contracts ahead of the company-wide unionization votes. All of Delta’s about 12,000 pilots already are unionized.

Industry analysts say Delta could lose an important competitive edge over the four other large U.S. hub-and-spoke carriers, where more than two-thirds of workers already are unionized. The ranks of the heavily unionized include UAL Corp.’s United Airlines and Continental Airlines Inc., which recently disclosed plans to merge and would leapfrog Delta in size.

Heavily unionized airlines “tend to be more bogged down in work rules, making them less flexible and agile,” said William Swelbar, an airline labor researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Delta hasn’t had a strike since 1947 and for decades management told employees they formed a “family.” The airline has avoided the fractious wage negotiations currently roiling most of its rivals. Last week, AMR Corp.’s American Airlines, the second-largest U.S. carrier by traffic, asked managers to train as replacement workers in case flight attendants strike.

In contrast, Northwest had a long, strained history of labor-management relations. The airline was buffeted by 11 work stoppages over a half a century, including the most recent two union strikes at a major U.S. airline.

Delta had the second-lowest hourly labor costs among the five hub-and-spoke carriers in 2009 and its non-unionized workers were 5.2% cheaper than its unionized Northwest counterparts after adjusting for productivity, according to AirlineForecasts LLC. The aviation consultancy predicts Delta’s annual labor costs will jump by about 25%, or $1.2 billion, if company-wide unionization drives succeed.

Management said union organizers now targeting more than half of Delta’s employees are trying to destroy a healthy working relationship. “It’s a campaign based on ‘Don’t trust the management, don’t believe in the culture,’ of pitting one group against another group,” said Michael Campbell, Delta’s head of labor relations.

Union boosters say the old Delta culture took big hits in the 1990s, when an aggressive cost-cutting drive laid off thousands of workers. They say the goodwill was largely dead by 2005, when the airline landed in bankruptcy court and employees had their wages and benefits slashed.

Delta executives said they’ve been working hard to put any lingering bitterness to rest. Mr. Anderson, the CEO, spent several hours on a recent Saturday serving drinks to employees and their families at a big block party on the corporate campus.

Still, tensions are rising. In a weekly address to staff in April, Mr. Anderson said employees had complained that representatives of the International Association of Machinists were “visiting homes unannounced, frightening your spouse and your children, or in some cases blocking driveways to prevent you from leaving your home.” Employees should call the police in such cases, said the former Northwest executive who took the reins at Delta in 2007.

Machinists represent more than 10,000 former Northwest workers, including ramp and ticket agents, and are trying to win over roughly twice as many longtime Delta employees. A Machinists spokesman said organizers have enjoyed an “overwhelmingly positive” response during thousands of home visits over the past couple of months. At workplaces, workers are “afraid” to speak with organizers because supervisors pointedly question them afterwards, said union spokesman Joseph Tiberi.

Bill Tweed, an Atlanta-based flight attendant at Delta since 1996, said management is “extremely approachable” and employees don’t need “a middle man” to speak on their behalf.

“No one in the United States is guaranteed a job. It concerns me when there’s rhetoric out there that a union is going to save me my job,” said Mr. Tweed, age 48.

But Kim Evasic, a unionized Northwest flight attendant based in Detroit since the mid-1980s, said she believes it’s important for workers to be organized while management focuses on shareholder returns.

“It’s best to work with a contract, because it’s a business,” said Ms. Evasic, also 48.