Sunday, January 13, 2002

Delta-attendants struggle carries high stakes

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        As much as they may disagree about who should win, officials from Delta Air Lines and the Association of Flight Attendants agree on one thing — the union-organizing election that ends this month is a very big deal for both sides.

Paula Breeze and Ruthie Illies are Delta flight attendants active in trying to get a union.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
| ZOOM |
        For Delta, rebuffing the union would keep the nation's third-largest carrier 87 percent union-free and company officials say it would allow the company to keep costs 5-7 percent lower than if they had more unions.

        “We also feel it would enable us to keep our flexibility, that you lose when you get into having a union,” said Delta spokesman John Kennedy.

        For the union it would mean a win in one of the largest organizing drives in history, by sheer numbers of potential new members. It also would raise the stature of flight attendants everywhere, union organizers say.

        “It would also force the company to put into writing all of these great things that they say they're doing for us,” said Paula Breeze of Pierce Township, a 25-year veteran flight attendant stationed at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport — Delta's second-largest hub.

        Since the election officially began on Dec. 7, union officials have been recruiting voters (an unmailed ballot counts as a “no” vote) through phone calls, letters and tables stationed in attendant lounges.

  • Mechanics — The Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association is trying to organize the airline's approximately 10,000 mechanics, but has yet to file for an election.
  • Ramp workers — The Transit Workers Union won the right to hold an election to try and represent Delta's approximately 11,000 ramp and cargo workers in 1999. The union was defeated by 83 percent in an election in March of that year, but it was discovered that the National Mediation Board sent out some ballots intended for United Airlines workers to Delta employees. Another election was held later in the year, and the union lost by 82 percent.
        Delta has countered with newsletters, anti-union videos sent to employees' homes and supervisors wearing buttons saying “Rip it up,” in the hopes that some attendants will take their advice and destroy the ballot, thereby voting no.

        Ballots were mailed to the airline's approximately 20,000 flight attendants. To count, they must be received by Jan. 30.

        The mediation board, which oversees labor relations in the railroad and airline industries, will count the ballots on Feb. 1, and if more than half mailed ballots, the union wins.

        The airline has about 1,100 locally-based flight attendants.

        Neither Delta nor the union will say specifically how much they are spending on the campaign. AFA officials say that a $2.50 monthly fee assessed all members is being used to fund the effort, or about $1 million a month.

        Mr. Kennedy said Delta's efforts are part of the company's overall communications budget, and would not give details.

        Area and national AFA activists admit that Cincinnati is not known as a union hotbed.

        “We have people who are behind us, but they're not about to say anything publicly,” said Ms. Illies of Burlington. “This is a lot more laid back here.”

        AFA organizer Carol Edelson, who has overseen the effort in Cincinnati, said the local base seems to be the testing ground for different anti-union methods.

        “There have been times that we've heard about that the supervisor has called in the employee one-on-one,” Ms. Edelson said. “And there are a couple of supervisors who are getting very personal about it.”

        The union has already filed interference charges against Delta, but the mediation board has said it would not investigate until after the election.

        “We are confident that the board will find that we have followed the letter of the law, as we always have and are doing currently,” Mr. Kennedy said.

        Yet there are some flight attendants who want nothing to do with a union, saying that it would put constraints on the company.

        “All you have to look at is the way the company has behaved recently with job reductions,” said Tom Cantanzaro, a flight attendant from Burlington. “Not one Delta flight attendant has been let go involuntarily, compared with other airlines.”

        But as much as the election could mean to either Delta or its flight attendants, the repercussions could go even further.

        “It would definitely be a consolidation of economic and political power,” said AFA president Pat Friend, whose union has nearly 50,000 members, including flight attendants at United, US Airways and AirTran. “This would strengthen our hand and voice in not only Washington but at every bargaining table.”


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