A narrow vote by Delta Air Lines flight attendants against union representation -- their third such declaration in nine years -- was a surprising defeat for organizers and an affirmation of the company’s mostly non-union model.
The National Mediation Board announced Wednesday that about 51 percent of votes cast were against unionization, following a months-long, contentious campaign.
“We have said all along that we believe our direct relationship works well for our people and our company,” Delta spokeswoman Betsy Talton said. “Our flight attendants have spoken and we are pleased that so many flight attendants agree.”
The Association of Flight Attendants accused Delta of interfering in a fair election and said it will seek a re-vote.
“The amount of intimidation that these flight attendants experienced was unprecedented,” AFA President Pat Friend said. The union’s top lawyer, Ed Gilmartin, said Delta tracked employees’ voting on company computers and that the company’s communications to flight attendants about the election “crossed the line.”
The AFA, which represented about 7,000 attendants at Delta merger partner Northwest Airlines, sought the vote in a bid to represent the two airlines’ unified workforce of 20,000 attendants.
Given the presumed built-in support from Northwest workers and recent election rules changes favorable to organizers, the AFA was regarded as having a strong shot. The union planned a celebration at its Washington headquarters and had already scheduled initial training for union leaders.
But Delta waged a strong counter-campaign, arguing attendants are already relatively well-paid and treated and that unionization would hurt the airline.
Delta spokeswoman Gina Laughlin called the AFA’s complaints about management’s tactics “ridiculous. Delta did not track anyone’s votes.”
“The AFA clearly plans to continue its fear and smear campaign, even after our flight attendants have decided,” she said.
The flight attendant vote was one of three being conducted this fall among large work groups at Atlanta-based Delta. Service agents and baggage handlers, who like flight attendants were unionized at Northwest but not at Delta, also are voting, with outcomes due Dec. 7 and Nov. 18, respectively.
The NMB said 8,778 flight attendants voted to join the AFA and 9,544 voted to remain non union. About 438 cast write-in ballots for some form of representation. About 94 percent of eligible workers voted.
Barry Hirsch, a professor of economics at Georgia State University, said too few Delta attendants saw a clear economic incentive to pay $43 a month in AFA dues. Because the airline industry is so highly unionized, there is little difference between pay, benefits and work rules between unionized airlines and non-union major airlines, he said.
“Just based on pure financial terms, there wasn’t much appeal to having a union in that you were going to get similar wages without it,” he said. And as a large corporation, Delta has many formalized rules and policies, he said.
Hirsch said the flight attendants tally may lessen the chances for other union drives. On the other hand, he said, flight attendants may be less inclined than other workers to vote for a union because they are seen more as the face of the airline “and do identify with the company and with management.”
The election was the first of such a large employee group under new rules the National Mediation Board installed this year for airlines and railroads. They allow unions to win representation if they get support from a majority of only those who vote. Previously they had to win support of a majority of all eligible workers, which meant workers who didn’t vote were effectively voting no.
“It looks like the change of rule didn’t have a major effect,” Hirsch said.
Because of the change in Mediation Board rules, management changed its tactics in this election.
In prior votes in 2002 and 2008, when AFA drives fell short by much wider margins, the company encouraged employees to tear up ballots and not vote. Delta this time engaged in a vigorous get-out-the-vote campaign through a variety of media, ranging from posters and flyers to signs on employee shuttles, pop-ups on the company Intranet site, DVD mailings and phone calls by managers to employees’ homes.
Delta also held a question-and-answer sessions with flight attendants, at which Chief Executive Richard Anderson and the top in-flight service executive, Joanne Smith, said a union isn’t necessary or helpful.
Anderson told flight attendants at one event that an AFA contract at United and US Airways “hasn’t stopped layoffs, it hasn’t stopped concessions.”
“It’s just a lot of acrimony and I don’t know for what purpose,” Anderson said. “I think the track record of the AFA has been quite poor as far as what it has obtained for the employees” in exchange for dues. He said the Northwest flight attendants contract “is substantially inferior to what we have at Delta.”
The company also pledged it will not outsource flight attendant or pilot jobs to foreign nationals -- one of the fears among some flight attendants because of an attempt of such a move at Northwest in the past. Delta has also given raises to non-union employees.
Barring a successful appeal by the AFA, Hirsch said he thinks the election ended Wednesday was probably its best chance at unionizing Delta flight attendants.
If the outcome stands, the union loses the ex-Northwest flight attendants as members. Delta flight attendants who wanted to try to revive the union would “have to start from the beginning,” acknowledged Friend, the AFA president.
“I would say it’s very unlikely that it would happen, but it depends on how dedicated they would be,” she said.