Flight attendants union meets in Atlanta amid push to unionize at Delta

With a 5% raise taking effect June 1, Delta says its flight attendants at top scale will earn $20k more than AFA-represented flight attendants at United
Flight attendants and other union supporters rallied in downtown Atlanta on May 20, 2024. Kelly Yamanouchi / kelly.yamanouchi@ajc.com

Credit: Kelly Yamanouchi

Credit: Kelly Yamanouchi

Flight attendants and other union supporters rallied in downtown Atlanta on May 20, 2024. Kelly Yamanouchi / kelly.yamanouchi@ajc.com

Leaders of the Association of Flight Attendants are holding their national convention this week in Atlanta, the hometown of Delta Air Lines — the union’s white whale it has sought for decades to organize.

The airline industry is highly unionized, and the AFA represents cabin crew members at more than a dozen carriers. But Delta, nestled in the more union-averse South, has remained an anomaly among the nation’s largest carriers with pilots as Delta’s only major unionized group.

Holding the convention in Atlanta was a decision “to go somewhere meaningful,” said Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA).

“We’re all here to support Delta flight attendants” in their organizing campaign, Nelson said outside the Hilton Atlanta downtown, where the convention is being held. “This was a great place for us to come together and show that labor is serious also about rising up in the South.”

Kara Dupuis, a Delta flight attendant and a member of the Delta AFA organizing committee, said she thinks “it sends a very strong message.”

Hundreds of AFA leaders and other union supporters took an after-lunch break during the convention to hold a downtown rally Monday afternoon, with Delta’s headquarters less than 10 miles south.

But from the Delta campus near Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the company issued a statement Monday saying Delta employees “have repeatedly rejected union representation from AFA and other groups over the past 20 years” and that the company “has a long track record of providing industry leading total compensation.”

Delta said with a 5% raise taking effect June 1, its flight attendants at top of scale will earn about $20,000 more than AFA-represented flight attendants at United.

And labor organizing in the South faces plenty of other opposition.

Among the speakers at the flight attendants rally in Atlanta was Shawn Fain, president of the United Automobile Workers, whose union suffered a loss in a representation election at Mercedes-Benz in Alabama last Friday. “We support each other,” Fain said.

The decision by Mercedes workers to reject the union was seen as evidence of the challenge union activists face.

Fain, however, said Monday: “The momentum is still there.” He said the result at Mercedes “was just a sign of the struggle in this nation” for union organizing, as companies run anti-union campaigns. “It’s the same issue everywhere.”

Association of Flight Attendants International President Sara Nelson speaks into a megaphone at a rally in downtown Atlanta as United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain holds a sign up next to her. Kelly Yamanouchi / kelly.yamanouchi@ajc.com

Credit: Kelly Yamanouchi

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Credit: Kelly Yamanouchi

Unions across the country have more frequently banded together in recent years, in an attempt to gain more influence. In 2022, unions revived their organizing efforts at Delta with a more united front between AFA, the International Association of Machinists and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters — to create what they called the largest private-sector unionization campaign in the country, targeting 50,000 Delta employees, including flight attendants, baggage handlers and mechanics.

Nelson told flight attendant leaders at the convention that she wanted to “build the support” to file before the general election in November for a union representation vote at Delta. But that’s far from certain.

Delta now has nearly 29,000 flight attendants, and union organizers must collect enough signed authorization cards to represent a majority of the flight attendants calling for a representation election.

And under the Railway Labor Act that governs airline labor relations, each card expires after 12 months — so organizers face a constant push to collect more and more cards, as cards expire every day.

National voices

Among the speakers at the flight attendants convention was National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy, who previously worked for the International Brother of Teamsters and AFL-CIO. She said “labor is critical, not just for wages and working conditions… (but is) critical to improving safety.”

She cited an AFA survey of Alaska Airlines flight attendants that showed 10% reported living with their parents or families because they cannot afford rent.

“If you’re worried about finances,” she said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “that is going to impact safety in some way, whether it leads to fatigue, whether you’re forced to work more than one job, whether you feel less ability to report a safety issue.”

She also said she thinks union contracts can “provide provisions above and beyond what is a minimum safety standard.”

Unions seeking to organize Delta have marshaled members of Congress to sign letters urging Delta to agree to remain neutral on union organizing. Last week, 25 U.S. senators signed such a letter, after more than 150 members of the U.S. House signed a similar letter led by the House Labor Caucus.

Several Democrats in Georgia’s congressional delegation have also written letters, but have taken a milder approach, urging Delta to “continue to adhere to the noninterference requirements of the Railway Labor Act” — essentially encouraging Delta to follow federal law, to “take any allegations of interference seriously” or to “remain a good faith partner.”

At other airlines around the country, AFA is focused on pushing for new contracts for its members. AFA has started a petition to urge Delta CEO Ed Bastian to raise pay for flight attendants at Endeavor, a Delta subsidiary, and Delta Connection carrier whose flight attendants are represented by AFA. Endeavor, as a regional carrier, has lower pay scales than larger airlines like Delta.

“Delta Air Lines can afford to bring up the pay of Endeavor Air flight attendants right now,” Nelson, the AFA president, shouted into a bullhorn at the downtown Atlanta rally. “Instead, Ed Bastian took $20 million in a bonus.”

Delta, for its part, said Endeavor flight attendants are working under a contract negotiated in 2020. New pay rates were put into the contract with other improvements in 2022, which flight attendants voted to approve. The contract now extends into 2027 with “top-tier” compensation for the regional airline industry.