Union chief unable to bag Delta after 16-year pursuit

Pat Friend spent the last 16 years of her career trying to organize Delta Air Lines flight attendants.

Friend, who retires next month as president of the Association of Flight Attendants, expected the election tally last week to allow her to finally check that off her list. But the AFA lost, by a thin margin, for the third time in nine years. The union plans to file charges of interference against Delta and seek a rerun election.

A United Airlines flight attendant since 1966, Friend said she’d been told Delta would be a tough nut to crack, even by her own union’s board, made up of attendants from different carriers.

“Some of the leaders would say, ‘This is never going to happen. We’re wasting our time,’” Friend said. “I looked at it as investing in our profession, because as long as there was a group out there that was that large, where management had sole control over what their wages and working conditions would look like, that became the standard that the management [at unionized airlines] with whom we were bargaining always had in the back of their minds.”

The AFA is the world’s biggest flight attendant union, representing 42,000 at 21 carriers.

Friend became the AFA’s president in 1995, and a year later it started working in earnest at Delta. The union set up an organizing fund and earmarked a $1 per member per month allocation of dues to the cause. That led to a representation vote in 2002, which the union lost badly. Another vote in 2008 did better but still fell well short of a majority favoring the AFA.

Over the years, the union has probably spent millions of dollars, Friend said.

“We knew that it was going to be a long-term investment,” she said.

Friend said it’s not easy organizing flight attendants, in part because their workplace is so spread out.

“First you have to find them,” she said. “It’s not waiting down at the plant gate and waiting for shift change so you can talk to people.”

The campaign at Delta involved dozens of pro-union flight attendants, each spending hours staffing tables in crew lounges and hotels and talking to colleagues. They “essentially put their lives on hold to support this organizing campaign,” Friend said.

Despite last week’s outcome, Friend is not ready to surrender. If a rerun election is granted, she said, “then we will know exactly what the flight attendants themselves think.”

She also acknowledged a new election would not happen before she retires.

But she’ll still be keeping an eye on it after she retires, she said: “I’m not going far. Absolutely, I’ll be watching it.”