Unions team up in attempt to organize thousands of Delta workers

Labor push comes amid growth in unionization efforts nationwide

Three major labor unions are taking the unusual step of joining forces, in an effort to organize tens of thousands of employees at mostly non-union Delta Air Lines.

While other airlines are heavily unionized, at Atlanta-based Delta the only major unionized group is the pilots. The carrier has fended off other unions for years, including when it merged more than a decade ago with the heavily unionized Northwest Airlines.

The Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) has spent decades trying to unionize in-flight crewmembers at Delta. The International Association of Machinists (IAM) has also taken a run at Delta employees in the past.

Now, those two unions are teaming up with a third — the International Brotherhood of Teamsters — in an attempt to organize Delta workers.

The coordinated campaign comes amid a wave of organized labor activity across the country, including unionization efforts at Amazon, Starbucks and Apple stores. The Teamsters have also been ramping up activity for their biggest and potentially most-contentious contract talks with Sandy Springs-based UPS next year.

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Since the election of President Joe Biden, a Democrat, union representation petitions filed with the National Labor Relations Board have increased significantly. The number of union representation petitions filed in the last fiscal year was up 53% year-over-year, reaching the highest level since fiscal year 2016, according to the NLRB.

AFA is continuing to seek to unionize the carrier’s flight attendants, while the IAM will pursue Delta baggage handlers. The Teamsters is newly entering the Delta organizing effort, with plans to try to organize Delta mechanics.

Delta in a written statement emphasized the value of its “direct relationship” with employees, calling it “a stronger, faster, and more effective way to drive improvements than AFA, IAM, or Teamsters representation would be.”

Delta also said its employees have “industry-leading compensation,” and noted that its employees “have repeatedly rejected AFA and IAM representation” in the past. And, the company said, “we do not believe they can effectively support our people better than we do today.”

Richie Johnsen, who heads the IAM’s Air Transport Territory, said during a speech at a union event earlier this year: “We will go after Delta Air Lines, but we’re going to do it differently.”

“We have to stop fighting other unions,” Johnsen told Machinists union members. “Delta Air Lines — one of the most anti-union companies in the country — has successfully kept unions off their property for their lifetime.”

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Johnsen estimated there could be a total of more than 45,000 workers that the three unions are seeking to organize at Delta.

Sara Nelson, AFA president, said in a written statement that flight attendants have been organizing throughout the pandemic “and have begun officially collecting cards. ... We’re thrilled to support Delta fleet service workers organizing with the IAM and Delta mechanics organizing with the Teamsters.”

There has been some acrimony between different unions seeking to organize Delta employees in the past.

The Association of Flight Attendants relaunched an organizing effort at Delta three years ago after the Machinists union struggled to gain momentum in a campaign to organize Delta in-flight and ground workers. Unions have at times competed against each other to unionize the same group of workers.

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After Delta’s 2008 merger with Northwest, unions held a series of elections to try to gain representation of the combined airline — but failed. Among the tactics that thwarted unions’ efforts were anti-union campaigns within the company, some of which pitted unions and workers against each other.

But now, the unions are seeking to capitalize on a resurgence of support for labor by banding together. Teamsters General President Sean O’Brien in a written statement called it “organizing wall-to-wall.”

Johnsen told his members that the collaboration will involve each union “taking one of those pieces. ... Let Delta Air Lines come after the whole labor movement instead of targeting one of us,” he said.