CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The dealmaking behind the creation of the world's largest airline may very well result in a referendum on union representation in the airline industry. Why? The planned merger of Delta ( DAL) and Northwest ( NWA) represents a combination of two carriers with vastly different labor profiles. Just 15% of Delta's 55,000 workers are unionized; 80% of Northwest's 34,000 workers are. In the representation elections likely to follow a merger, unions could very well be ousted. "We think part of the thinking here is that they could de-unionize the transportation labor movement," says Robert Roach, general vice president of the International Association of Machinists, the largest airline union and a key opponent of the merger.
A History of Union Resistance
In recent years, a series of efforts to unionize Delta workers have all failed. In 2002, flight attendants rejected the Association of Flight Attendants, which won only 29% of the vote. 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 failed to organize about 8,000 fleet-service workers. The IAM has been trying to organize about 6,000 fleet-service workers since 2006. Only pilots and flight dispatchers are unionized at Atlanta-based Delta, which has been able to resist unions because of a strong Southern corporate culture combined with occasional contract perks to keep workers happy. For the moment, the spotlight is on the AFA's renewed effort to organize 13,500 flight attendants, including 12,000 who are active employees. Voting began April 23 and will conclude May 28. Delta is actively opposed, a stance that is not the norm in the airline industry, where most carriers are heavily unionized and tend to remain neutral in union elections. Last month, in a prepared statement, Joanne Smith, the airline's senior vice president of in-flight service, rebuked the AFA, saying: "The AFA's track record at other network carriers is not a good one," and noted that "Delta flight attendants have it better than what the AFA has been able to deliver at other airlines."