Delta baggage handlers vote against union

Baggage handlers at Delta Air Lines on Thursday became the second major group this month to vote against unionization, another victory for the company and a disappointment for union organizers who had hoped to change the labor landscape at Delta.

The decision follows a similar vote against unionization among flight attendants. A series of elections at the Atlanta-based carrier this year is aimed at resolving labor issues from Delta’s 2008 merger with Northwest Airlines.

The 81-year-old airline apparently is on the way to preserving its mostly nonunion model, even after its acquisition of mostly unionized Northwest. At Delta, the least-unionized of the major airlines, the pilots are the only major group with labor representation. Baggage handlers from Northwest were represented by the International Association of Machinists. Those from Delta were nonunion.

The vote "just goes to show you that the Delta family still exists," said Bobby Cotton, a Delta baggage handler in Atlanta who voted no.

"A lot of workers were saying, ‘Why are we going to invest in this union when our benefits are far greater than what Northwest employees have?'" Cotton said.

"On any job, there always will be peaks and valleys, but for the most part Delta's been quite fair with us," Cotton said. "We can't have everything we want, we just have to accept it and move on, and just be willing to make sure this company stays successful."

Delta said in a statement: "We have said all along that we believe our direct relationship works well for our people and our company."

About 81 percent of the 13,104 employees eligible to vote cast ballots; 5,569 -- about 53 percent -- came out against unionization, while 5,024 voted for it, according to the National Mediation Board.

In an indication that the machinists union may seek a revote, the union said it is investigating allegations of "widespread illegal election interference by Delta Air Lines." Delta said the union should "respect the will of the majority" and said its plans to standardize pay, benefits and work rules and combine employee seniority lists will be delayed if the union files interference charges.

Still voting on whether to unionize are Delta's 700 stock clerks, who finish voting Monday, and 16,000 customer service agents, whose election ends next month. Like the baggage handlers, both groups are also voting on whether to join the International Association of Machinists.

Several other smaller groups have gone nonunion at Delta since the Northwest merger, through elections or voluntary decertification of the unions.

In the election among flight attendants at Delta, about 51 percent of votes were against unionization. However, the Association of Flight Attendants claimed Delta interfered in the election and said it will seek a revote.

On Thursday, U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., sent a letter to the National Mediation Board, which governs labor relations at airlines and railroads, urging it to "respect the outcome" of the flight attendants' vote. The letter included signatures of U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., and 35 other senators.

Among baggage handlers, the nearly 5,000 workers from Northwest brought a built-in bloc of union members to the Delta election, and a rule change for airline labor representation elections had been expected to make it easier for workers to unionize.

But, Delta spokeswoman Betsy Talton said in a written statement, "Whether voting under old rules or an entirely new voting process, Delta people have decided to preserve the Delta culture."

Sam Ellis, a Delta baggage handler from Northwest who serves as a general chairperson for the machinists union, said he was shocked by the results because he had expected the union to win.

"We have 60 years of negotiated benefits through Northwest and without that contract, we lose those benefits," Ellis said. "I've been part of a union so long I can't imagine working without a union."

But with about 2,500 people not voting, "I would say there was just a group of people that didn't care one way or the other," Ellis said.

The election was held under new National Mediation Board rules that are likely to make it easier for unions to organize workers. Unions at airlines and railroads, where labor relations are governed by the Mediation Board, can now win an election by getting votes from a majority of those who cast ballots, rather than from a majority of all who are eligible to vote.

Without unions representing baggage handlers and flight attendants, Delta has more flexibility with work rules, such as how to schedule workers' assignments, said Gary Chaison, professor of labor relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

The votes this month against unionization may affect future union labor representation elections at Delta, Chaison said.

"You don't want to be the one group that becomes unionized when the others don't. In circumstances like that, you may bear the brunt of management's antagonism," Chaison said. For longtime Delta workers, "to opt for collective bargaining is to choose a whole new way of doing things, which can be frightening."

Some workers may feel unionizing "could be interpreted as antagonistic by their employees, and so why create conflict by a gesture like that," Chaison said.

Rejections of unionization at Delta "look very bad" for unions, he said. "It's a troubled labor movement in a troubled industry. These are interpreted as sort of sign posts in the future direction of the American labor movement."