Delta flight attendants kick off major round of union votes on Wednesday

By Joshua Freed, AP
Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Union votes could bring change to Delta

MINNEAPOLIS — Delta Air Lines Inc. is the only big U.S. airline that is mostly nonunion. Elections that began Wednesday give 50,000 workers a vote on whether it stays that way.

The votes are the last act of Delta’s absorption of Northwest Airlines, which it bought in 2008. Flight attendants began voting on a union Wednesday. Three groups of ground workers are expected to vote in the next few months.

This could be a turning point for Delta, where only pilots are unionized among the bigger workgroups. The Atlanta company has had few labor problems compared with most major airlines — the last strike was a mechanic’s walkout in 1947. But at heavily unionized Northwest, labor relations were often combative, with two strikes since 1998.

That’s why Delta wanted to absorb the workers without their unions, and has been encouraging them to vote against organizing. The workers who came from Northwest still work under their old contracts.

Mike Campbell, Delta’s executive vice president of personal and labor relations, said money isn’t the issue. He said pay rates are generally higher at nonunion Delta than under the union contracts at Northwest. He thinks a bigger issue is that unionizing employees will change the culture at Delta.

Delta is about to become the world’s second-largest airline after United and Continental combine this week into the new No. 1. Unions have tried to make inroads at Delta before, without success. The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA failed to win enough votes to bring the union into Delta in 2008, before the Northwest deal closed.

Some Delta employees hope the result is the same this time.

Linda M. Conley of Tyrone, Ga., has been a Delta flight attendant for almost 36 years. She said she’d take a 10 percent pay cut before she’d vote for the union.

“If I had a problem, I just could walk in to my supervisor, and I know she would help me,” she said. “I just don’t know if that’s going to happen with a union. I think everything changes.”

Delta and the unions have both mounted big campaigns in recent months.

Union supporters gathered at Delta headquarters to encourage co-workers to vote for the AFA. They decried what they called harassment by Delta management about the vote.

Voting for the union will give workers a voice and “security and respect that comes with negotiating world-class contracts,” said Joan Harvey, who’s been a flight attendant for Delta for 20 years.

Other Delta workers opposed to the union gathered in a Delta parking lot near the airport.

The flight attendants balloting runs through Nov. 3 and more union votes are coming. About 14,000 fleet service workers such as baggage handlers vote between Oct. 14 and Nov. 18. A vote is also expected soon for 16,500 passenger service workers such as gate agents. And 700 stock clerks who work in a Delta maintenance facility vote Oct. 25-Nov. 22. The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers is the union on the ballot for those workers; it also covered those groups at Northwest.

Associated Press Writer Dorie Turner in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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