Delta Flight Attendants May Unionize Even Though Unionized Crew Are Deeply Unhappy Elsewhere

Airlines are one of the most heavily unionized industries in the country. That works out well for customers and investors at Southwest, but less well at other airlines. Delta, the other historically strong performer, is mostly non-union. Their largest unionized work group is their pilots. Delta’s dispatchers are also unionized.

The biggest flight attendants union is working hard to change that.

Flight attendants at Delta are currently pushing to form a union at the only major airline in the US where flight attendants are not unionized.

Workers are racing to gather union authorization cards signed by a supermajority at Delta to trigger a union election over the next few months, as signatures are only valid for one year.

The aim is to allow the airline’s 23,000 flight attendants to vote on whether to unionize with the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA) and will face fierce opposition from an airline that has fought previous efforts.

Here’s Delta’s website arguing against a union.

It seems like the easiest thing for Delta flight attendants to do is look around at how AFA-CWA represented flight attendants are doing at other airlines. AFA-CWA flight attendants at United Airlines are deeply unhappy, based on their own public scoring system. The union says their flight attendants are net negative 95% promoters of the airline as of August 2, 2022.

  • 91% of AFA-CWA union members at United feel unvalued by their company
  • 99% feel their issues are unresolved
  • 96% find United management unresponsive during irregular operations

That’s the AFA-CWA track record at the largest airline where they represent flight attendants, which is similar in size to Delta – so Delta flight attendants should be skeptical of promises that the same union is making about how their lives will be better paying a portion of their salary for AFA-CWA representation.

Meanwhile Delta has even started paying flight attendants for time spent boarding, something no union-represented flight attendants at any other airline receive.

  • Unions complain that Delta is only doing this to stave off unionization efforts, but if that’s true doesn’t that benefit Delta flight attendants?

  • They’re better off with unionization efforts at Delta that don’t succeed – unions as a stalking horse, not a reality. It’s the best of both worlds, pressure on management that leads to better pay, but without the bureaucracy of the union!

AFA-CWA has been trying to organize Delta fight attendants for years. In Sara Nelson’s messaging to union members, she concedes that union drives alone have gotten flight attendants much of the value of a union, with Delta offering more overtime pay and bonuses (and this was before Delta added on boarding pay). Her pitch, though, is that Delta might reduce pay without a union contract. If that ever happened of course flight attendants would quickly unionize. Delta would have a hard time filling positions. They wouldn’t be able to operate their schedule or make as much money. This is clearly a silly argument.

It was a great morning with @FlyingWithSara and the 17th Annual #MLK Breakfast in #Atlanta. #Union #SelfiesForSolidarity @afa_cwa pic.twitter.com/Y1FJf5cYJO

— Eric McCulley 🇺🇦💙💛 (@EMcCulley) January 17, 2020

The truth is that unionized flight attendants at other airlines haven’t gotten paid for boarding time because unions haven’t prioritized it. And unions haven’t prioritized it because it disproportionately benefits junior crew at the expense of senior credit. Unions benefit senior employees at the expense of more junior ones.

  • Those working international long haul trips have more flight hours – unpaid boarding time per hour of paid flying time is much lower than for flight attendants working domestic trips. So senior employees who get to work those flights want higher pay for flight hours, not pay spread out to include boarding time.

  • Consider a two hour (paid) flight with 35 minutes of (unpaid) boarding versus a 10 hour (paid) flight with 50 minutes of (unpaid) boarding. Now multiple the unpaid boarding piece across several domestic segments a day for what are usually more junior crew working these trips.

Most Delta flight attendants benefit from the current arrangement, but the most senior crew might benefit from a union. The union drive doesn’t tell cabin crew that a majority of members might lose out even if a union contract costs the airline more – even leaving aside the out of pocket cost to pay for the union itself. But AFA-CWA head Sara Nelson, who nearly sought the top labor job in America running for President of the AFL-CIO, would improve her standing with a win at Delta.

Flight attendant unionization drives failed at Delta in 2002, 2008, and 2010. However a majority of flight attendants have been hired at Delta since the last union vote. The people who voted against it before aren’t necessary the same ones who would be considering it now. On the other hand, it’s not clear that younger flight crew should be pro-union.

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