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.
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.
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."