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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Dec 21, 2011, 7:45 pm

Flight Attendants Vote to ‘Keep it Virgin’—and Transport Workers Union Cries Foul

BY Mike Elk

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Virgin America Airlines, an arm of Virgin Airlines owned by brash media savvy billionaire Richard Branson, has quickly become known for being an airline that tailors itself to the needs of its customers. The airline was the first to feature in flight Wi-Fi interest, personally operated TV sets, and even “mood lighting.” Virgin America ad campaigns have often drawn on sexually provocative ads.

Thus it is no surprise that Virgin American Airlines ran a very tech savvy—and successful—anti-union campaign with a mobile friendly website that told workers considering to join a union  to “Keep It Virgin.” (Virgin’s portrayal of unions as sexually deviant reminds me of similarly hip Whole Food CEO John Mackey saying, “The union is like having herpes. It doesn’t kill you, but it’s unpleasant and inconvenient, and it stops a lot of people from becoming your lover.”)

On Tuesday, the company's anti-union campaign resulted in flight attendants at Virgin America voting down union representation 324 to 223. Some workers are crying foul.  “I guess we’re no longer a ’Virgin’ anymore,” said Ramon Wood, Virgin America flight attendant based at JFK. “The company said we were all on the same team. But when we stood up for a voice on the job, they started a ruthless anti-union campaign.”

Initially, a majority of Virgin America’s 621 flight attendants signed cards indicating they wanted to join the Transport Workers Union. According to TWU union organizer Karla Kozak, the central issue in the organizing drive was not pay or benefits, but Virgin America’s inflexibility in allowing flight attendants to have a say in things like scheduling of work, work conditions, and redressing of grievances with work procedures.

“Virgin American is a great airline and a great a company. All flight attendants want is to be treated the same way they treat their guests,” says TWU organizer Karla Kozak.  

Virgin America currently has 2,200 nonunion workers in the United states, but according to TWU Organizing Director Frank McCann, the company is seeking to rapidly expand its operations in the United States by adding 300 additional flight attendants in the coming months. By holding an election now, TWU would have a far better shot than organizing it a year from now, when the bargaining unit would likely be larger.

Virgin America fought the organizing drive vigorously with what the union characterizes as “good cop-bad cop approach.” The union alleges the Virgin America “tried to buy votes” by sending gift certificates to all flight attendants shortly before the union election in a message meant to convey the company always tries to help its workers. (According to McCann, the union is currently looking into whether or not they are going to file legal charges with the National Mediation Board, which oversees labor disputes in the rail and airline industries, for bribery.)

Virgin America did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday. However in a statement, Virgin American Chief Executive David Cush said: "We are pleased our teammates let their voices by heard and voted to preserve what sets us apart as an airline. With the voting concluded, we look forward to working together as one team to keep building on what we have achieved to date."

Virgin American airlines also appealed to workers sense of loyalty to the airline. In literature to workers, Virgin America said that TWU tried to prevent Virgin America from becoming an airline by joining a lawsuit with Alaska Airlines, which claimed Virgin American Airlines should not be able to enter the American marketplace because they were a “foreign-owned company.”

In literature to workers, Virgin America also claimed, “This team working together created a culture unlike any in the industry and in the process we made flying fun again. The TWU is now threatening to change the essence of what make us “Virgin America” – our culture – and trade that for the tired old roadmap that guides our competitors. This is your chance to fight for what sets us apart.”

In addition to playing nice with workers, Virgin America also showed that it could play very mean with employees if they voted to join a union. Virgin CEO Richard Branson appeared in a video saying that Virgin American employees could wind up with reduced pay or benefits or even lose their jobs if they voted for a union. Virgin America also held one-on-one anti-union intimidation meetings between flight attendants and their supervisors, warning workers of the consequences of joining a union; the result,  of the “good cop – bad cop approach," TWU claims, is that support for the union dissipated quickly.

“Every worker, in every job category, has a right to vote free of intimidation. That’s not what happened at Virgin. They used every anti-union tactic in the book, and we’re going to investigate very carefully whether they have violated the law,” McCann said. “Either way, Richard Branson and others in the executive suite ought to be ashamed of the way they bullied people. They claim to be a ‘new’ kind of company, but when it comes to recognizing workers’ rights, they’re operating straight out of the 19th century.”

The ability of Virgin America Airlines to beat back support for union shows that while the Occupy Movement has changed the overall conversation about inequality and corporate power in the media, there is still tremendous work to do to beat back the culture of corporate fear in the workplace. As the Virgin America union elections shows, organizing an American workplace remains incredibly difficult.

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.

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