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Union Takes on Delta

Machinists will launch a campaign to organize about 6,000 fleet-service workers.
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The International Association of Machinists says it will launch a campaign Monday to organize about 6,000 fleet-service workers at Delta Air Linesundefined.

Delta is the least unionized major airline and has successfully resisted repeated unionization efforts over the years. The IAM says it sees an opportunity because Delta workers set up their own internal organizing structure in a dozen cities before contacting the union. Delta filed for bankruptcy protection in September 2005, and its reorganization plan calls for about $900 million in employee cost reductions.

"It's rare you see a group so ripe for organizing that they've done the internal work," says union spokesman Joe Tiberi. "They've already set up a structure to get the cards signed. That's critical, having employees working on the inside, as opposed to external organizing.

"They came to us because they lost in bankruptcy," he adds. "They got pay cuts and they had no voice, no recourse. But they've seen that our members at bankrupt airlines have fared better than other employees."

In particular, Tiberi says, the IAM has been able to offer its members participation in the union's defined benefit pension plan, while airlines have moved to defined-contribution 401(k) plans for most other employees.

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Efforts to organize have not always been successful. The most recent effort at Delta came in 2002, when flight attendants rejected an attempt by the Association of Flight Attendants. In 2001, before an industry downturn forced Delta to reduce its workforce by roughly 30,000 workers, the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association failed to organize Delta mechanics. In 1997, the Transport Workers Union was unable to organize the 8,000 fleet-service workers then employed by the airline.

Delta CEO Gerald Grinstein said last week that employee morale remains high, despite the cuts, partially because the airline appears to be succeeding in its turnaround plan. He noted that Delta's recent success in opening dozens of new international markets is due largely to strong execution by employees.

"One of the strengths of Delta is that morale and attitude have stayed at a high level," Grinstein told reporters in New York, where he was introducing the increased international service. "Most of all,

employees want to be with a winner. Even though they've had to make sacrifices, they are with a winner."

Before a union election can occur, the National Mediation Board must define the group of eligible workers and verify that more than 35% have signed cards supporting an election. Then the union must be approved by 50% plus one of the workers.

Tiberi says the IAM intends to move on to other groups at Delta if it organizes the fleet-service workers.