Airline conducted ‘largest anti-union campaign the nation has ever seen,’ AFA president says
Rebounding from a narrow loss of a vote to represent 20,000 flight attendants at Delta Air Lines, the Association of Flight Attendants/Communications Workers of America (AFA/CWA) is preparing a challenge to the results and requesting that the election be re-run.
In the protest to be filed on Nov. 23, the union accuses the airline of using a mix of old-school intimidation tactics and chilling new information-age surveillance to unlawfully interfere with workers’ decisions about whether to join a union.
The challenge is important in part because it could influence conditions for organizing at a time when many unions think recent rule changes might open up a wave of recruitment. The industry is 40 percent unionized, but offers many opportunities for new organizing.
Last summer, the National Mediation Board (NMB), which administers the Railway Labor Act that governs airline labor relations, dropped the old union representation election rule that required a majority of all workers at a worksite to vote for a union for it to be recognized. They changed it to follow the standard set by the National Labor Relations Act, which grants recognition to a union when a majority of ballots are cast for a union.
In many cases, an overwhelming majority of airline workers have voted for a union, but because non-voters were counted as “no” votes, workers ended up with less than half of all employees and no union. That happened in 2008, when AFA won a hefty majority of the votes cast at Delta, just before it merged with Northwest Airlines to form the nation’s second largest airline (just behind United, following its acquisition of Continental).
But it got votes from only about 40 percent of all workers, partly because Delta – whose pilots are the only organized part of the workforce – ran a strong anti-union campaign, including discouraging voting. AFA also lost a drive at Delta in 2002.
Flight attendants at Delta were the first to vote under the new rules, but the union still lost when ballots were counted on Nov. 4, with 9,216 workers favoring a union (8,778 picking AFA) and 9,544 voting for no union. “In the face of the largest anti-union campaign the nation has ever seen, Delta flight attendants came within 328 votes of getting a union,” AFA president Pat Friend said. Increasing the heartbreak, the vote also effectively eliminated the union former Northwest workers had formed decades ago.
The union blamed an intimidating, overwhelming barrage of anti-union messages – starting with billboards in employee parking lots, continuing with aggressively anti-union supervisors, one-on-one meeting with managers, forced anti-union meetings, weekly robo-calls from CEO Richard Anderson (who said the union’s actions were “not Christian”), pop-up messages on corporate computers, multiple slick mailings to homes, and much more.
Unlike past elections, Delta harangued workers that “you must vote.” And managers made it clear the vote should be “no” to preserve Delta’s “direct” relationship between management – which permitted direct cuts in jobs, hours, pay and benefits when times were especially bad for airlines in the ‘90s – without bargaining by a “third party,” the union.
The turnout was an amazing 94 percent. AFA general counsel Ed Gilmartin says the union would have won with a 90 percent turnout. AFA already represented more than 7,000 Northwest flight attendants, 80 per cent of whom voted for a union, but its support among Delta flight attendants – who typically had little contact with more pro-union Northwest attendants – dropped slightly from two years ago. One startling coincidence – or indicator of either rigorous organizer diligence or some deeper problem with the voting: AFA’s vote tracking had identified 8,778 pro-AFA votes – precisely the number the NMB counted.
Did Delta simply out-organize the AFA? “I’d agree if you believe Delta followed the rules,” Gilmartin says, “but they didn’t.”
In its challenge to the election, AFA targets in particular the company’s encouragement of voting on Delta’s own computers, where employees sign on with special passwords. That made it possible for Delta to track who went to the NMB website to vote and to monitor how people voted, the union says.
Gilmartin says that without a full investigation the union has no evidence of how far surveillance might have gone, but employees’ recognition that managers might be able to see whether or how they voted is overwhelming in its own right. “At a minimum it was intimidation,” he says, “and at most they were tracking and conducting surveillance.”
Oddly enough, back when the old election rules were in place and Delta was trying to discourage voting, the company and its expert witness argued against the NMB allowing voting on its website or the union e‑mailing a link to that website (both very unlikely to be open to surveillance, compared to company computers with unique employee passwords linked to comprehensive files).
Delta and its expert testified in 2009 about precisely the threat the union now identifies, according to an NMB summary:
Delta urges the Board to deny AFA’s request to permit hyperlinks because of the “unacceptable risks that a hyperlink would pose to the security, integrity, and privacy of the balloting process in representation elections under the Railway Labor Act.” ….
Delta provided a declaration from an expert in computer technology and security, Christopher Racich. Racich identifies a number of security issues with allowing participants to post a hyperlink. “If a visitor to a website were to type in a password, or otherwise provide identifiable information, and then thereafter click on a hyperlink to the Board‟s website, it would be possible for the website operator to determine who had done so – matching the password to the activity.”
The union still supports Internet voting, but not through employer computers, especially when employees use distinct passwords.
Machinists union pushes to unionize another Delta force
It is not unusual for the NMB to call for new elections, for example, in the case of FedEx pilots, when there is evidence of employers “overwhelming” the election process and failing to provide the “laboratory conditions” the NMB requires. And now, despite heavy right-wing Republican pressure, the NMB with Obama appointments tilts more toward supporting worker rights than it did in the Bush years. But a test similar to the AFA challenge at Delta may occur before the Board even begins reviewing the flight attendants’ case.
Voting has just begun among three units of Delta workers: 14,000 ramp, baggage and other fleet service workers; 16,000 ticketing, gate, reservation and other public contact workers; and about 700 “stores” workers. The International Association of Machinists represents all three groups from Northwest. They make up slightly less than half the merged workforce, but historically unionized workers are largely separate from nonunion workers who had been at Delta.
In these elections, the NMB sends instructions by mail to each worker, who can use her two identification numbers to vote by telephone or the Internet. Delta once again is encouraging voting from company computer terminals, but the impact on the results may be less than with flight attendants, who are more likely to log on to company terminals at the start of each work day. But the security and surveillance issues remain.
Together, the Delta elections constitute one of the biggest private sector union representation votes in decades. It’s a challenge for the Machinists, who have not been an organizing powerhouse recently, but the union has campaigned from the bottom (face-to-face meetings of organizers and workers, workplace committees and social network mobilization) to the top (radio and TV advertising and union leader fly-arounds to key hub cities).
Delta is mounting the same kind of “aggressive anti-union campaign” against these workers as it did against pro-union flight attendants, says Machinist spokesperson Rick Sloan.”We’re seeing standard anti-union campaigning,” supplemented by Delta computer terminals where workers log on for their work.
Within the next year or so, the merger of United and Continental will lead to new elections involving the Machinists for ramp workers, public contact workers and flight attendants. But for ramp workers and attendants, different unions from the pre-merger airlines will square off. Organizing is also underway at other airlines, including American.
Despite the loss at Delta, the new NMB election rules are clearly more fair and provide an opening for more union successes (such as recently at Piedmont). But as long as management has such a free hand, from disseminating an overwhelming message to creating the specter – perhaps the reality – of surveillance, union representation elections will be at best an uphill battle for workers and at worst a fraud distorted by economic coercion.
David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.