Delta Flight Attendants Reject Unionization Following Northwest Merger

Last Updated Nov 9, 2010 9:01 AM EST

Last week, Delta (DAL) flight attendants voted against having union representation. While many might not be surprised to see the flight attendants continue with the status quo, the recent merger with Northwest and change in voting rules made this outcome a lot less likely than it would have been in the past.

When Delta and Northwest merged, one of the biggest questions was around what would happen in terms of union representation. Delta has long had some of the best relationships with its employee groups. Part of this is its location in the union-unfriendly South, but the mostly-positive working relationship with employees has without a doubt contributed to this standing greatly. Those relations have strained over the past few years as bankruptcy and fuel spikes led employees to have to shoulder a great deal of pain, but time and time again, union representation has been shot down in most Delta employee groups.

My guess is that seeing unionized peers at other airlines suffer the same or worse pay cuts kept the majority of flight attendants away from unionization in recent years. Why pay dues out of your now-reduced wages if the union wouldn't be able to stop the bleeding anyway?

That view presents a tremendous contrast to Northwest's flight attendants. Of all the airlines in the US industry, Northwest had some of the worst labor relations around. The mechanics, for example, saw their options as so limited that they went on strike in what ended up being effectively a suicide mission with massive job losses. There seemed to be a feeling that if Northwest could run an airline without employees, it would. And the employees wanted a union to help prevent that from happening.

So what happens when you bring those two cultures together? Serious cultural integration issues, that's what. But both sides had to come together to vote on union representation. Would the Delta culture win and keep unions off the property or would the Northwest culture bring more unions on property? In the end, the Delta culture won, but it's still not a done deal.

On November 3, the results were announced. The Delta (including former Northwest) flight attendants voted against a union with a slim majority. There were 18,760 votes and 9,216 were for a union while 9,544 were against. That was a squeaker of a win, but it does show the will of most of the flight attendants. Of the 19,887 eligible voters, a high 94 percent came out to vote. That number was of great concern to those fighting against a union.

The National Mediation Board recently changed the rules to favor those voting for unions. Previously, if you voted yes, it was obviously a "yes" vote for a union. However, if you voted no or if you didn't vote at all, that was seen as a "no" vote. So those people who didn't show up would have counted as "no" votes and that's why you would see lower turnout numbers. Why bother voting "no" if you were going to be counted that way anyway?

The new rule no longer counts people who fail to vote. So under the old rules, there would have been 9,216 "yes" votes out of 19,887 eligible voters, or only 46.3 percent. Under the new rules, it's 9,216 "yes" votes out of 18,760 votes cast, or 49.1 percent. In this case, it didn't change the outcome, but the expectation was that it could in a tight race.

But just because the votes are in doesn't mean that it's over. As you would expect, the flight attendant union is challenging the results and saying that Delta interfered with the vote. I suppose you'd expect to see this challenge, because it's a huge loss for the union. Is it a valid complaint? I have no idea, but the union has filed this complaint every time it's lost in the past. If it does win the challenge, it will simply set up another vote.

What I do know, however, is that the Northwest flight attendants are very uncomfortable with the idea of not having a union.

For now, we face cultural immersion at Delta without the protections of a legally binding contract. A contract never precluded us from having productive, direct relationships with all levels of management, but without explicit, defensible terms of employment, just cause and due process, we can only be cautiously optimistic that one person's relationship isn't more direct than another's.
Now, it falls on the company to continue to treat Delta employees in a way that keeps them from deciding they need a union. It's going to be hard to convince the Northwest folks, especially since they have so many years of distrust of management built up, but the past can't be changed.

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