Labor, Democracy & the Common Good

Delta Air Lines flight attendants have been reliably non-union since the Atlanta-based airline formed in 1925. But that may finally change if a group of flight attendants tenaciously organizing a push to join the Association of Flight Attendants are able to win enough support for a union election. 

Over the past 20 years, organizers have tried three times to hold a union election for Delta’s flight attendants–the only ones at a “Big Four” U.S. airline who still aren’t unionized–but each time, they’ve failed to win enough support. 

Last fall, pro-union flight attendants at Delta reignited a unionization push that launched Nov. 1, 2019, but was abruptly interrupted by COVID-19. This time, they say, things are different.

“A lot more flight attendants are fired up now than they were in the past, because of the things they saw during COVID,” said Jason Adams, a Boston-based Delta flight attendant who’s one of the union campaign’s organizers. 

During the pandemic, Delta made operational changes that caused uncertainty and confusion for flight attendants and other employees, said Adams, who’s worked for Delta for eight years. Delta management didn’t communicate a clear furlough policy to flight attendants, he said, and it unilaterally changed scheduling and workplace procedures without any advance notice. 

“Delta has a strong culture of doing right by our people and works tirelessly to ensure they are supported and aware of any changes,” said a Delta spokesperson in an emailed statement, noting that all airlines have been facing operational challenges in the last few months. 

But Adams said these frustrations, along with others pre-dating the pandemic, have revitalized the flight attendants’ unionization push. Gaining collective bargaining rights to negotiate a contract with management, Adams and other pro-union flight attendants believe, will give them more say in operational decisions that affect them. The organizers say they want higher pay, better working conditions, and clearly formalized work rules.

To trigger a union election, the AFA organizers must rally a majority of Delta’s roughly 24,000 flight attendants to sign union cards–or roughly 12,000 flight attendants who’re constantly crisscrossing the country. Logistically, that’s very tough to do.

Adams and Taylor Garland, the communications coordinator for the AFA, which is part of the Communications Workers of America, talked to Atlanta Civic Circle about why Delta’s flight attendants need a union–and the challenges of trying to organize thousands of workers who circulate through different cities and time zones.  

Are other airlines’ flight attendants unionized? 

Delta’s overall workforce is far less unionized than at any other major American airline, Garland said, and Delta flight attendants are the only ones at a major U.S. airline who aren’t unionized. The other “Big Four” – Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, and American Airlines – have a union density rate of 82% to 86%. By contrast, Delta’s unionization rate for its roughly 83,000 employees is just 20%.

This enormous disparity is due in part to some clever policy decisions by Delta management over the years, Garland asserted. “Delta is a very sophisticated union-buster,” she said. “They’re very careful to keep up with the pay rate of the unionized airlines.” 

Do Delta flight attendants really need a union if their pay keeps up? What’s the big deal?

Delta’s top base salary is $66,806 for flight attendants who spend 80 hours in the air per month – slightly higher than the base salary at United and American, according to Delta AFA

But that does not account for disparities in bonuses and compensation for ground holding time, according to the AFA. It says that, on average, Delta flight attendants are paid less than their counterparts at American, United and regional airlines, but they work more “block hours,” or time onboard a plane.

Delta announced in April that it would start paying cabin crews for boarding time on June 2, after giving the flight attendants a 4% pay raise in March. 

AFA union organizers claimed Delta’s largesse was in reaction to their efforts. “As we get closer to filing for our union vote, management is getting nervous,” said an AFA statement in response to Delta’s move. It also cautioned that without a union contract, Delta could take those gains away at any time. 

How did the COVID-19 pandemic change attitudes about unionizing? 

Part of the flight attendants’ renewed sense of urgency when they relaunched the union campaign last November, Adams said, was because they saw how a catastrophic event like the COVID-19 pandemic caused management to make major changes to their working conditions without their input. 

Flight attendants want the clarity and security that comes with a collectively bargained contract, he said. “It’s better to have these difficult conversations and negotiations in the good times, so you have something to point to if the bad times come again.” 

Why did your own attitude change?

Adams said his own love for Delta’s culture but frustration at the lack of say is typical of many Delta flight attendants now pushing to unionize.

When Adams, who is Dutch, moved to the United States in 2015, he was shocked at how different the U.S. approach to labor rights is. “I was surprised that I didn’t have to sign a union contract immediately,” he said, because most transportation workers in Europe are unionized. But Adams became enamored with Delta’s close-knit corporate culture and believed management when they said flight attendants didn’t need a union.

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Adams said his thinking began to change when he was promoted to a crew assist agent, tasked with answering flight attendants’ questions and hearing their concerns. 

He started hearing first-hand about the confusion that occurred when Delta management changed work rules without employees’ input. Adams said the flight attendants he helped were typically tired, hungry and confused, due to unexpected changes in their schedules or procedures. 

“That’s when I became a sort of silent activist,” he said. 

Adams said he still hesitated to publicly support the cause until a coworker convinced him that there is power in numbers and coordinated, collective action. Now, he’s an AFA activist and organizer. 

“Delta is trying to divide our workgroup and have us work against each other,” he said. “But we are digging in. It is all of us working together. We are the union.” 

How do the flight attendants voice concerns to Delta management right now? 

If employees have problems or concerns about their compensation or working conditions, they must go through Delta’s Employee Involvement Group (EIG), which Garland said is meant to alleviate the need for unionized collective bargaining.

The EIG is a standing group of flight attendants elected by their peers who meet with Delta management to discuss compensation, workplace policies, and any other significant issues. In theory, this group should be able to air the concerns and grievances of their fellow flight attendants. 

A Delta spokesperson called the EIG “part of the strong working relationship between Delta leadership and flight attendants,” and said it “works in partnership with Delta leadership to schedule and set the agenda for monthly meetings with management,” in an emailed statement. 

But in practice things are different, Adams said, because Delta management decides when to meet with the EIG representatives, sets the agenda for each meeting, and can suspend it entirely, as it did early on in the pandemic. 

“At the start of the pandemic, Delta was looking for ways to save money and the EIG was taken away,” he said. “We didn’t have any chance to weigh in on operational decisions.”

The spokesperson confirmed that Delta temporarily suspended EIG meetings “during the height of the pandemic,” but said in an email that “EIG leadership remained in contact with the airline management during the pause.”  

How does unionizing work at Delta? Is it similar to Starbucks?

Despite the AFA organizers’ sense of urgency, the laws they must follow to hold a union election make it a slow process.

Many flight attendants don’t have a home base, because they’re constantly flying to different cities and their schedules fluctuate. For that reason, Adams said, it’s extremely challenging to coordinate a unionization conversation with large groups of flight attendants. 

“We have to organize across the entire country,” he said, instead of store by store, like Starbucks workers are doing.  

“It’s a much tougher process than you might see at Starbucks or Amazon,” said Garland.  Because employees are place-based at those companies, she explained, unions can organize locally or regionally. 

And unlike Delta,  Starbucks and Amazon are governed by National Labor Relations Board rules, which require only 30% union support from employees to trigger an election and also allow them to sign union cards electronically. 

But flight attendants must unionize under the more stringent Railway Labor Act – enacted almost a century ago, in 1926. It requires support from a majority (50% plus one) of Delta flight attendants before they can hold an election – and they must sign an actual physical card and return it to the organizers. 

What’s more, the union cards expire after just one year. That means roughly 12,000 Delta flight attendants must be card-carrying union supporters for a year-long period to trigger a vote. 

Despite the obstacles, Adams and the other AFA union organizers believe they’re approaching the numbers they need to trigger Delta’s first union vote in over a decade. Adams declined to say how many signed cards the AFA has collected, but he hopes they’ll have enough for an election around the end of this year or early next year.

Editor’s note: Want to read more stories like this? Follow along on our new series Labor, Democracy & the Common Good, our series on workers’ rights and unions. It’s born, in part, out of our Democracy SOS fellowship, where we are one of 21 newsrooms across the country reimagining how media reports on critical issues facing our democracy. 

At a time of displeasure with the two-party political system, the Great Resignation, debates about the future of work, and the reality that the American Dream is out of reach for too many of us and the next generation, it’s clear labor organizing is a topic worth reporting. 

If you have story ideas, scoops, or would like to learn more about the Labor, Democracy & the Common Good series, please reach out to our newsroom. We welcome your feedback.

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  1. What a pity. Some Yankees think Delta needs Union representation for the flight attendants. No company treats their employees better than Delta. Union leaders are amongst the most corrupt. Please vote, “No!”

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