Union fight puts Delta in spotlight amid tense political climate

With gray skies over the Atlanta skyline a Delta jet takes off on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012. JOHN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM



With gray skies over the Atlanta skyline a Delta jet takes off on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012. JOHN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM

With a mostly non-union work force that has voted against labor representation for years, Delta is unique among major airlines.

For years now, the Atlanta-based carrier has been able to fend off labor organizing efforts by investing in a deft and sophisticated campaign. The takeaway of many workers: Delta is an attractive place to work, with decent pay and more than a billion dollars in profit sharing bonuses paid out to workers each year. Why risk screwing that up?

But nationally, pro-union public sentiment is growing louder. A new Gallup poll puts union support at a near 50-year high, with support strongest among young people. Statistics show more Americans participated in work stoppages in 2018 than at any time since 1986. There is renewed political energy on social media around union causes, amplified by a large field of Democrats running for president.

As labor organizers at Delta near a critical deadline this fall could the longtime anti-union stronghold finally be vulnerable?

Even union supporters acknowledge it will be an uphill battle, especially in the hostile political environment of the South.

Still both sides seemed taken aback earlier this year when an anti-union flyer distributed by Delta management went viral. In it, Delta suggested workers would be better off taking the $700 a year they would be charged for union dues and spending it on video games instead.

An image of a Delta flyer tweeted by the International Association of Machinists union.

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Critics admonished CEO Ed Bastian and said the company, which has been crafting a progressive image on a host of other issues, seemed tone deaf. The high-profile backlash was unlike any reaction to past union fights against the airline.

Delta's chief marketing and communications officer Tim Mapes acknowledged that the poster "was a misstep."

“It was below us and it was to me not representative of the values that we have in terms of respect and inclusion and, in some ways, empathy,” Mapes said. “What we do is we respect people’s right to make a choice” on unionization, and “that didn’t come through” in the poster, he said.

Lynn Rhinehart, former general counsel of the AFL-CIO, argued the reaction reflected the changing political climate.

“(The poster) was ridiculing the idea of having a union and what a union can do for working people,” Rhinehart said. “You combine that moment that we’re in with this over-the-top poster – it just hits people wrong,”

‘I can do it for myself’

It’s no accident that Delta’s only major unionized group of employees is its pilots, while its flight attendants, mechanics, baggage handlers, customer service agents and others remain non-union. Less than 20 percent of the airline’s workforce is union-represented.

The company’s position is that its flight attendants and ground workers don’t need a union because a “direct relationship” between management and workers is the “cornerstone of our unique culture.”

“You have a history and culture in the Southeast where independence was treasured, was valued very highly,” said Phil LaPorte, a labor arbitrator and professor emeritus from Georgia State University. “I think you have some workers who resist unionization as part of their heritage, saying I am independent, I can do it for myself. I don’t need anyone speaking for me.”

That view is echoed by Candy Bruton, a Delta flight attendant for 48 years who sits on an employee involvement group that works with management.

Katrina Evans (right) waves two protest signs as dozens of Delta flight attendants participate a lively anti-union rally in College Park in 2011. Labor organizers have tried multiple times to get a union vote for flight attendants, machinists and others at the Atlanta-based airlines.

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“Personally I think a union is useless and cumbersome for our company,” Bruton said in an interview.

She said she sees Delta flight attendant pay as “at the top of the industry,” and when issues arise with work rules or other matters, “we have been able to sit down, talk about them and come up with ideas about how to change them.”

A key part of Delta’s anti-union strategy typically involves a cadre of employees who are cheerleaders for management, and who spread a message against unionization. And there are plenty of Delta fans within the company’s workforce. When Bastian appears at employee meetings and events, he is often swarmed by workers waiting for a chance take a selfie with him.

‘You can lose your job’

But other workers have raised concerns about unfair treatment and the company’s separate class of workers, categorized as “ready reserve,” who have limited hours and are paid less.

Delta flight attendant Spencer Hayes, who is leading the union’s Atlanta campaign to organize flight attendants, said he wants better health care coverage and better work rules for how flight attendants are paid when they have to work overtime due to flight delays or reroutings.

The national reaction to the flyer “brought a breath of fresh air into our campaign, and it exposed a lot that we’ve dealt with,” he said.

“Delta is robbing us of our wages,” Hayes said. “When you’re working without a contract, you are abused. The company can do whatever they want and you have to take it. If you don’t, you have disciplinary actions, you can lose your job.”

Hayes said it’s been a challenge for union organizers because the company has “put in policies to silence our voice.”

Previous efforts to get a union vote at Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines have failed. This one was in 2009.

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Delta has long relied on websites, newsletters, mailers and posters posted in break rooms to convince employees that it’s a bad idea to unionize.

The airline also launched apps for its campaign against the International Association of Machinists (IAM) union, along with websites called “Don’t risk it. Don’t sign it” and “Be Delta. Be Different,” which warned workers that the information on cards they sign calling for an election is not confidential and cited other “risks” associated with signing the cards. (Those apps and websites were recently taken down and replaced with messages saying: “Thanks for your patience as we refresh our site.” Delta declined to comment further.)

Delta is “very smart in their campaigns. They throw a lot of money in these campaigns,” according to Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

Last week, Delta announced 4 percent pay raises for flight attendants and ground workers -- the two groups the IAM aims to unionize.

Union support rising

Nationally, support for unions has increased, according to a 2018 MIT Sloan School of Management Institute for Work and Employment Research working paper which said the share of U.S. workers who say they would join a union if they could is 48 percent, up from 32 percent in 1995.

In a Gallup poll conducted in early August, 64 percent of respondents said they approved of labor unions while 32 percent disapproved.

In a show of support for the unionization campaign at Delta, AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Liz Shuler spent Labor Day in Atlanta, leafleting at Hartsfield-Jackson with union organizers.

“I wanted to be in Atlanta on Labor Day because I believe that the labor movement is rising and growing in the South, and particularly in Atlanta,” Shuler said.

It’s unclear if any of that will actually translate to increased unionization — given the strength of employer pushback.

In June, for instance, workers in Chattanooga, Tenn. narrowly rejected the United Auto Workers bid to unionize the Volkswagen plant there.

At the same time, high-profile teacher strikes in places like West Virginia and Denver, Colo. have been successful, winning unions long-sought concessions.

A Bureau of Labor Statistics report found that 485,000 Americans participated in work stoppages in 2018, the largest since 1986.

June 24, 2016 Atlanta: Delta pilots conduct informational picketing at the south terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in 2016. At the time, Delta pilots were raising awareness and urgency with Delta management for higher pay in negotiations for a new labor contract. EMILY JENKINS/ EJENKINS@AJC.COM

Credit: Kelly Yamanouchi

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Credit: Kelly Yamanouchi

And the flyer emerged amid a crowded presidential primary where union-friendly themes, like income inequality, are energizing voters.

What that amounts to for Delta, according to Tom Smith, an economist and finance professor at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, is that “the timing might be very bad.”

“Maybe three years ago, or eight years ago, this would have been fine,” but now there’s heightened awareness about issues surrounding job security, pay and health coverage, Smith said.

And as Delta’s global presence has grown, its Southern home base may become a less powerful political force within the company. It is expanding with newer hubs in Los Angeles, Seattle and New York.

Out of Delta’s workforce of 80,000, more than 30,000 are based in Atlanta.

In the South, management’s “perception about how people feel about unions may be slightly distorted because they’re surrounded by a very non-union segment of politicians and communities,” Smith said. “But Delta has to be aware of the fact that they’re serving people from all over the country.”

A progressive image?

With that in mind, Delta has been promoting a more progressive image as it courts the millennials that Bastian says will make up half its workforce by the end of the decade.

Millennials tend to have an "increasingly liberal" outlook. according to the Pew Research Center. Delta has trumpeted its environmental sustainability through moves like cutting the use of plastic straws and its support of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community by celebrating Pride Month. It took heat from gun owners when it revoked a discount for National Rifle Association members.

But some of the environmentally-conscious, socially progressive people Delta is targeting may also be union supporters — and some cried foul when they learned of Delta’s aggressive push against unionization.

Delta CEO Ed Bastian (left) and COO Gil West unveil the new A220 aircraft while celebrating the 10-year anniversary of merging with Northwest at the Delta Air Lines TechOps on Monday, Oct 29, 2018, in Atlanta. Bastian has said an anti-union flyer circulated by management “wasn’t well crafted” but that the airlines was and always would be  pro-people. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

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Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Less than two weeks after the anti-union flyer went viral, Delta posted a tweet praising House passage of an LGBTQ civil rights bill and stating "We're proud to stand by the LGBTQ community. #EqualityAct." A Twitter user responded: "A corporation trying to align itself with a vital social cause while simultaneously guilty of union busting…. Does anyone really buy this garbage?"

Some younger people may be turned off by the company’s aggressive anti-union tactics, according to Bronfenbrenner.

“(They) are learning about labor for the first time, and learning about what employers do,” she said. Others may be getting more involved in political activism, “and now they’re discovering that this is what happens when you stand up to employers.”

A deadline looms

The clock is ticking for the IAM, which has spent years trying to organize the Delta ground workers and flight attendants. The machinists union has the exclusive right to try to unionize Delta flight attendants until October — at which time it is set to lose that exclusivity per an AFL-CIO decision. That opens up the opportunity for the Association of Flight Attendants union to also vie for representation.

In order to file for an election, the union must get cards signed by 50 percent of the workforce to file for an election, and the cards expire after a year — so the union is constantly trying to get new cards signed as old ones expire.

Under federal rules, companies have a right to express their opinions on unions. Delta contends it has a “federally protected right to educate [employees] on the truth.” But there are limits.

Case law states that employer communications cannot contain a “threat of reprisal or force or promise of benefit.”

The IAM contends that Delta overstepped the bounds, and in May filed a complaint with the National Mediation Board (NMB), which governs labor relations at airlines and railroads. But the NMB said it will not investigate because the union has not yet filed an application for a unionization election.

The union has run into problems in the past in organizing campaigns at Delta.

The IAM in 2015 withdrew a request for an election to organize Delta flight attendants, and the NMB asked the U.S. Justice Department to look into the possibility that fraudulent signatures were used to petition for the election.

The union acknowledged at the time that some of the cards had insufficient information or questionable signatures. Delta alleges the IAM submitted more than 2,000 cards with forged signatures.

Now, the IAM again faces a huge challenge in trying to reach thousands of workers spread across the country and constantly on the move, to convince them to sign an authorization card to petition for a unionization election.

IAM assistant airline coordinator James Carlson called the video game flyer was “the tip of the iceberg” in their long-simmering battle with Delta.

“We’ve seen that for years and years and years, and you almost become desensitized,” Carlson said.

“It’s a real battle.”

A Snapshot of Union Unrest

After a photo went viral on social media showing a flyer issued by Delta management telling workers to spend their money on video games instead of on union dues, Delta fell into the crosshairs of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.; Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio; Bob Casey, D-Pa.; Ron Wyden, D-Ore.; Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis.; Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.; Ed Markey, D-Mass.; and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.

The Senators wrote a letter to Delta CEO Ed Bastian expressing “serious concerns regarding Delta’s insulting and demeaning communications directed at the airline’s non-union workforce” and urging him “to end Delta’s anti-union tactics.”

Sen. Kamala Harris wrote a similar letter to Bastian calling the airline’s campaign “disingenuous, disrespectful and misleading.”

Bastian in a letter to Sanders acknowledged that the flyer “was poorly crafted and not an appropriate communication to our people.” But he wrote that “Delta is and always will be pro-people.”

He said Delta has increased annual compensation for its workers by 80 percent since 2008, and that at top scale after 12 years of service, airport agents and flight attendants earn $74,000 annually, while mechanics earn $121,000 annually.