MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The nation’s biggest flight attendant union lost its all-or-none fight to cover those workers at Delta Air Lines on Wednesday, a stunning defeat in an industry where heavy union representation is the norm.
The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA immediately said it would ask federal regulators to investigate possible interference from the company, and would seek a re-vote. Votes to join a union fell just 328 short out of 18,760 cast, the union said. That worked out to union support from 49 percent of Delta’s 20,000 flight attendants.
Delta has 20,000 flight attendants, including roughly 7,000 who came from Northwest Airlines when Delta bought it in 2008. The Northwest flight attendants were in the AFA, but their Delta colleagues were not. The vote was to resolve whether the union would cover all of them, or none.
The AFA lost a vote at Atlanta-based Delta in 2008. But two big changes gave the union hope it could win this time. First, Delta ranks now include union members from Northwest. And the Obama administration in May changed a voting rule in a way widely seen as making it easier for unions to win elections.
The AFA’s cause wasn’t helped by the fact that Delta’s non-union flight attendants are paid more. The union has said other benefits even out the difference. Delta said it intends to raise pay to the same level for all flight attendants.
The union said it faced strong opposition from Delta, with organizers barred from some crew lounges, brochures sent to worker’s houses, and one-on-one talks with managers.
Daniel Grey, a union officer from Northwest, said workers got a pop-up reminder to vote every time they logged onto the company computer, and big banners on the buses that shuttled flight attendants from the parking lot to the terminal read “Decision 2010.”
He said that taken altogether, the company’s message was not just to vote.
“It’s not meant to be innocuous. It’s meant to say, ‘Vote against the union,”‘ he said.
Workers could vote from company computers. AFA General Counsel Ed Gilmartin said he wants the National Mediation Board, which runs airline union elections, to look into whether Delta tracked which employees had voted, or even how they voted.
“The AFA’s claims are ridiculous. Delta did not track anyone’s votes,” said Delta spokeswoman Gina Laughlin. Employees asked if they could vote from company computers, and Delta told them they could as long as they were on their own time, she said.
Organized labor has been hemorrhaging members for decades and the losses piled up during the recession. Last year, union membership in the private sector dropped to 7.2 percent, the lowest rate on record.
Airlines are a different story. Most are heavily unionized. Wednesday’s vote sets up Delta as the only big U.S. carrier with a big non-union block of front-line workers, though its pilots are in the Air Line Pilots Association.
Voting is now under way for 31,000 more Delta ground workers in three groups, who are deciding whether to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. The IAM represented the same workers at Northwest.
“It’s an extraordinary outcome and extremely discouraging for the labor movement,” Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University, said of the flight attendant vote.
“We’re talking about an industry which is heavily unionized anyway,” Chaison said. “If you can’t organize a group of craft workers in a heavily organized industry, who can you organize?”
Delta shares rose 34 cents, or 2.5 percent, to close at $14.19, with all of the gain coming after the vote result was released.
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