There has been a lot of grumbling in labor circles that Obama hasn’t done enough for the unions that supported him so strongly in the 2008 election, but you are not likely to hear much of that in the inner circles of two airline unions that launched major organizing campaigns on Thursday. The unions anticipate that these campaigns may bring some 25,000 Delta Air Line workers into the union fold.
Two labor organizations — the Association of Flight Attendants and the International Association of Machinists — filed the paperwork July 1 with the National Mediation Board to set in motion union elections among Delta’s cabin crew members, baggage handlers, fleet service workers, customer service agents, and others at dozens of airports nationwide. Unless the elections get tangled in new technical or legal challenges, most of the results should be in by the end of the year.
The more dramatic and compelling story belongs to the Flight Attendants, which has waged a long and valiant struggle against hostile and aggressive executives at Delta. Affiliated with the Communications Workers of America, the AFA-CWA began preparing a major organizing drive at Delta back in 1997, only to suffer stinging election defeats in 2001 and again in 2008. Things look much brighter for the union now, thanks to new Obama appointees at the National Mediation Board which oversees labor relations in the airline and railroad sectors, and the recently completed merger of Delta with Northwest Airlines.
July 1 should represent a new Independence Day of its own for Delta flight attendants, according to AFA-CWA representative Corey Caldwell, because it means freedom from an arcane and restrictive Mediation Board election rule that prevented unionization in the past. One initiative of the Obama-dominated Board was to eliminate a 75-year-old rule that specified that a union representation election could only succeed if the pro-union voters amassed more than 50 percent of ALL workers in the specific bargaining unit, as opposed to a simple plurality of the employees participating in the election (as has long been the case in National Labor Relations Board elections). The Mediation Board announced the rule change earlier this year, and after swatting back a legal challenge from the anti-union trade group Air Transport Association, put the new rule into effect July 1. It was at the hour that the revised rule went into effect that ATA-CWA and the Machinists both filed their petitions to begin the new elections process at Delta.
However obscure the election rule may seem to outsiders, it is of tremendous relevance to Delta flight attendants, Caldwell said yesterday. In the failed 2008 union election, for example, the AFA-CWA did extremely well among the employees that voted – of the 5,375 votes cast, fully 5,306 were in favor of the union. But the Mediation Board had determined there were a total of 13,380 eligible voters in that election, and having failed to meet the threshold of 50 percent of ALL eligible employees, the AFA-CWA went down to defeat. The defeat was discouraging but not surprising: AFA-CWA had also won the 2001 election among the Delta flight attendants who had actually voted, but had also failed to meet the 50 percent threshold.
The Mediation Board election rule change helps the AFA-CWA, but Delta’s purchase of Northwest Airlines (announced in 2008 but only formally completed in January of this year) may be equally important in the upcoming election. Northwest flight attendants had been union members for many years before the merger, and combining the workforces of the two air lines means integrating the unionized flight attendants at Northwest with their non-union counterparts at Delta. Under related Mediation Board rules, the upcoming election will include a total of some 20,000 Delta/Northwest flight attendants, with the overwhelming majority of the voters coming from the unionized ranks of Northwest. Caldwell estimates that about 12,500 eligible voters will come from the unionized employees from the old Northwest organization, with the remaining 7,500 coming from the old non-union Delta. AFA-CWA leaders are confident that these numbers will add up to victory.
The same set of Mediation Board rules apply to the efforts by the Machinists union to organize at Delta – although the total number of workers involved looks to reach much higher, according to union spokesman Frank Larkin. He predicted that there were would be a series of representation elections in 2010-2011 that will ultimately involve about 30,000 workers. Of these, about 12,500 are currently unionized under the old Northwest collective bargaining agreements, with a larger group of about 17,500 men and women from the non-unionized group at Delta.
Like AFA-CWA, the Machinists are confident that the change in the Mediation Board election rule will give the union a better shot at success than was ever possible under the pre-Obama rule. But for the Machinists it will be a longer, more drawn-out process, Larkin said, as bargaining units will be divided into a series of distinct groups with separate elections (baggage handlers, customer service agents, etc.). The multiple Machinists elections will probably be staggered on a schedule that will stretch through much of 2011, and will not be coordinated directly with the AFA-CWA, he said.
Both unions are fully united, however, in their wariness of the senior executives of Delta. There has been no sign yet of the full-throated opposition to unions that AFA-CWA saw in the 2001 and 2008 representation elections, and that may be a good sign. However, Delta executives have in the past shown themselves to be skillful and hard-headed in their fights with employees. Although union leaders may have reason to grumble about the executives at Delta, they no longer have much reason to do so about the Obama administration.