Delta-Northwest Deal Could Oust Unions

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."

Under NMB election rules, not voting is the best way to prevent unionization. To be certified in an NMB representation vote, a union must meet two standards. One is that a majority of the people in the bargaining unit must vote. Second, the union must get a majority of the votes cast.

The AFA maintains that Delta is trying to "suppress" flight attendant voting, through signs, leaflets, DVDs and computer messages. But Delta spokeswoman Gina Laughlin says "the NMB has ruled that similar communication in prior elections were accurate and appropriate" methods to keep workers informed.

Interest on Capitol Hill

Because of the pending merger, Congress has taken a pronounced interest in the election.

On Monday, three Delta flight attendants met with a few dozen congressional staffers to discuss the carrier's efforts. "This entire campaign is about fairness, which is why management's current campaign encouraging flight attendants not to participate in the process is even more underhanded," union president Pat Friend said Tuesday in a prepared statement.

Last week, when Delta CEO Richard Anderson appeared before the House Judiciary Committee to discuss the merger, Rep. Betty Sutton, (D., Ohio), repeatedly questioned whether Delta is opposing the unionization effort. "We support a democratic free election with plenty of information for everybody," Anderson responded. Sutton concluded: "I will take your answer as not really answering my question, as the answer."

And earlier this month, 26 U.S. senators -- including Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama -- wrote to Anderson and Northwest CEO Doug Steenland urging two steps: that the two airlines "demonstrate a genuine commitment to cooperative labor relations by recognizing and bargaining with a majority of Delta or Northwest workers that identifies a union representative," and that the airlines "remain neutral and not engage in any untoward tactics in future union representation elections, particularly during the election for Delta flight attendants later this month."

Anderson will respond directly to the senators, Laughlin said.

Meanwhile, IAM president Tom Buffenbarger appeared last week at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the merger, and said airline executives "want to use this merger as a weapon" to eliminate the union representation that exists at Northwest.

IAM spokesman Joe Tiberi says one potential result, were the IAM to depart, would be to force 12,500 Northwest members to switch out of the IAM pension plan. (Accrued benefits would be retained.) "Our members are the only ones on the property who still accrue money in a defined benefit pension plan," he said. During Northwest's bankruptcy, other unions were compelled to move to defined contribution pension plans.

The merger does have a potential benefit for the AFA, which, even if it loses the current vote, would get another shot if the merger occurs -- this time with the added participation of 9,000 Northwest flight attendants who are already members.

Still, "this could very well be the last chance Delta flight attendants get to gain a voice in their workplace," says AFA spokeswoman Corey Caldwell. "The Delta/Northwest merger is not a guarantee."

Know What You Own: A Delta-Northwest merger could very well be followed by others in the industry. A joining of United and US Airways ( LCC), a deal that was attempted in 2000 but never materialized, is back on the front burner, according to sources, after talks between Continental ( LCC) and United, a unit of UAL ( UAUA), collapsed over the weekend. Meanwhile, British Airways says it is talking with American ( AMR) and Continental about "opportunities for cooperation."

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