Inside the Fight To Unionize Delta Air Lines

Delta is the last major airline in the US where flight attendants are not unionized. Its workers want to change that.

Maximillian Alvarez

Delta Airline employees check in luggage at the Ronald Reagan National Airport on July 22, 2020, in Arlington, Virginia. Michael A. McCoy/Getty Images

Flight attendants at Delta are currently pushing to form a union at the only major airline in the US where flight attendants are not unionized,” journalist and friend of the show Michael Sainato recently wrote in The Guardian. The aim is to allow the airline’s 23,000 flight attendants to vote on whether to unionize with the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA) and will face fierce opposition from an airline that has fought previous efforts.” Delta has fiercely fought off unionization efforts in the past, but workers and organizers are confident that this time they’ll get a victory. 

We talk with Jonnie Lane, who works at Delta and has been a flight attendant for the past 15 years, about her path to working in the airline industry, what it’s been like working as a flight attendant before and during COVID-19, and what a union would mean for Jonnie and her coworkers.

Prefer to read? A full transcript of this episode is available below.

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TRANSCRIPT

Maximillian Alvarez: All right. Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today. Brought to you in partnership with In These Times magazine and The Real News Network, produced by Jules Taylor, and made possible by the support of listeners like you. Working People is a proud member of the Labor Radio Podcast Network. So if you’re hungry for more labor and worker focused shows like ours, follow the link in the show notes and go check out the other great shows in our network.

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My name is Maximillian Alvarez, and I am recording this intro live from New York City. That’s right baby. Your boy has been in the Big Apple this past week. Been traveling for work and for a very mini book tour. And I’m actually recording this intro in my creepy little hotel room, so apologies if there’s a bit of an echo. But yeah. In case you guys forgot, I did have my first book published last month. It is called The Work of Living, and it is a collection of intimate interviews that I got to conduct with 10 workers at the end of year one of COVID. Honestly, the launch came and went, and I’ve just been so busy at The Real News that I haven’t really had much time to plan many book events, but that’s why I was so excited and so honored to do some events this past week. And it was even better because I got to do them with friends and comrades.

So I spoke with our dear sister Kim Kelly and the great Bob Henley at the Brooklyn Book Festival this past weekend. Then I jetted down to Philly for an event with me and the incredible writer and translator Liz Mason Deese, and that was hosted by the great folks at Making World’s Bookstore in Philly. And then to cap it all off, on Wednesday, I had an amazing time at The People’s Forum talking about the book and about reporting on worker struggles during COVID with the brilliant journalists and friends and comrades Alex Press from Jacobin and Luis Feliz Leon from Labor Notes. I can’t thank everyone individually, but I just wanted to say thank you so, so much to the Brooklyn Book Festival, to Making World’s Books, to The People’s Forum. Thank you to my wonderful co-presenters. And, of course, thank you to everyone who came out to see us this past week. Thank you to all the folks who bought the book. It genuinely means the world to me.

And to everyone listening, if you haven’t already, check out the book. But on top of that, support The People’s Forum. They do really incredible stuff here in New York and beyond. Support Making World’s Bookstore in Philly. Support the Brooklyn Book Festival. And, actually, if you want to check out the live stream of The People’s Forum event with me, Alex, and Luis, you can actually watch it on YouTube, and we have linked to that in the show notes for this episode.

All right. Well, we got so much great feedback from folks on our last episode from last week, which featured a classic Working People long-form one-on-one conversation between me and my man Leo Linder, who was actually working on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig when it exploded 12 years ago, killing 11 workers and causing the largest marine oil spill in human history.

And even though the conversation itself obviously touched on some incredibly heavy stuff, it really was a tremendous honor to talk with Leo. And I’m so glad that people are listening to Leo and that they are falling in love with him and his passion and insight as much as we have. So, Leo is awesome. Thank you again, Leo, for coming on, and thank you to all of you for listening.

And this week we are keeping the hits coming with another amazing conversation that I got to have with Jonnie Lane. Now, Jonnie is a flight attendant at Delta Air Lines, and she’s been working as a flight attendant for the past 15 years. I had so much fun talking to Jonnie, and I think you guys are… You’ll see why right away. She’s such an incredible person, and so lively, so easy to talk to, and we got to take our time in this conversation to get to know more about Jonnie and her winding path to becoming a flight attendant.

We got to geek out about literature for like 15 minutes. So just a heads up that that’s coming. And, of course, we talk about what it has been like working as a flight attendant both before and during COVID-19. And we also talk about the hugely important unionization effort that is underway right now at Delta Air Lines. As the great journalist and friend of the show Michael Sainato wrote for The Guardian, Flight attendants at Delta are currently pushing to form a union at the only major airline in the United States where flight attendants are not unionized. Workers are racing to gather union authorization cards signed by a supermajority at Delta to trigger a union election over the next few months, as signatures are only valid for one year. The aim is to allow the airline’s 23,000 flight attendants to vote on whether to unionize with the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA) and will face fierce opposition from an airline that has fought previous efforts.”

So this is a really pivotal union drive. And I think that you guys should certainly be following the drive as it unfolds, as I know we will over here. And you can do that by following the AFA CWA on social media. We’ll post updates on our social media whenever we have them. You should follow folks like Michael Sainato for updates. And, of course, you can check out the links that we’ve shared in the show notes.

And just as Delta has pulled out all the stops to fight off past unionization efforts – If you want to know more about that, Google it – But, just like they fought unionization in the past, you know that they’re going to do the same this time around. But workers and organizers are confident that, this time, they’re going to get a victory, and that that victory is going to improve Delta’s business, the customer experience, and, of course, the lives of Delta flight attendants like Jonnie. This is her story.

Jonnie Lane: Hello, my name is Jonnie Lane. I’m a Delta flight attendant, and I’ve been a flight attendant for almost 15 years now. I’m excited to be here.

Maximillian Alvarez: Hell yeah. Well, Jonnie, it is so great to get a chance to sit down and chat with you. I’m super, super excited to get to know more about you and your work at Delta. And, of course, listeners know that there is a big organizing push going on right now to organize Delta flight attendants, so we’re going to talk about that as well. And the American Flight Attendants’ Association. All that good stuff. We’re going to dive into all of that for you guys.

And it’s funny because we’re recording this… In a lot of ways, this sets up the rest of the conversation, because we were trying to schedule this with Jonnie and the flight attendant’s schedule is, much like the folks on the railroads that we’ve been talking to recently, it’s just nuts. [Jonnie laughs] You’re stopping at a hotel in between jetting across the world. And I still can’t imagine what it’s like to have that be your week-to-week. So I’m very curious to talk to you more about that.

But before we get there, since I’ve got you on a day when you’re not in the air, I was wondering if we could talk a little more about you. So now that you live a life where you’re traveling all over the place and staying in hotels and have the flight attendant schedule, do you still feel rooted to a certain place? Where did you grow up?

Jonnie Lane: Oh yeah, absolutely. I grew up in Decatur, Georgia. It’s about 15, 20 minutes outside of Atlanta. So I feel very much at home in Georgia and Atlanta. That’s where my heart is. Both my parents are still alive. They live there, as well as my older sister. So I always call Atlanta, Georgia, my home. That’s where I feel the most rooted. But I currently live in Colorado. In Denver, actually. And so I’m really going to blow your mind. So flight attendants are based… We can be based anywhere. It depends on the airline, where our major hubs are. But we can live in one city and be based in another. So I am from Atlanta, Georgia. I currently live in Denver, Colorado, and I am based in New York. And whenever I have to fly to work, I have to get on a three and a half hour flight to get to work. So that’s part of my life right now.

Maximillian Alvarez: I’m going to put this question as bluntly as I can: What? How does that work?

Jonnie Lane: It is pure insanity. And mine is one of the shorter commutes out there. I have a friend who lives in Rome and she is based in New York, and every time she has to work she flies from Rome to New York. And she works for about two to three weeks straight, and then she goes back home to Rome. It’s just a part of our life. We think of our commute as commuting like everyone else. You get in a car – Some people spend just as much time as I do in their car going back and forth to work driving to the office, cities 45 to an hour minutes away from work. So I just think I’m a commuter like everyone else. I know it sounds wild when I explain it, but to us it’s just a fact of life. But it’s just what I do. I get to enjoy that part of the job. I get to live in other places and experience them, meet different people, and I just love it. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Maximillian Alvarez: I guess when you put it that way, it does make sense. I’d be a hypocrite if I said that I couldn’t understand that. Because I mean, Jesus, I was just back home for the first time in three years. Back home in Southern California. And it was weird going back. This is the first time I’ve been back since the pandemic started, and it’s one of those feelings like you’ve passed through a portal where it both feels like nothing has happened since you left and also everything has happened since you left. So I’m still trying to deal with that. But it was obviously great to see my family and friends and eat as much In-N-Out and Mexican food as I could.

We were driving on the freeway, on the 405 at 3:00 PM on a Sunday, bumper to bumper traffic. And I was like, what the hell? I do not miss this part of Southern California. But when I think about it, yeah, there have been times when I’ve had to commute over an hour one way. I know folks who commute close to three hours as well. We spoke to an Amazon worker in Queens who had to commute basically three hours between the buses and trains and the ferry to get out to the Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island. So I guess you’re right. It seems crazy because the distance is so vast, but in terms of the time, I guess it’s like everyone else. We just have these long-ass commutes into work that we don’t get paid for most of the time, but it’s part of the job, I guess.

Jonnie Lane: Yeah. It’s a part of the job for a lot of us. It’s common. And not just at Delta, but every airline people live where they’re close to their family, they have a support system, or it’s more affordable. Some of our bases, especially with Delta, we’re based in some of the most expensive cities in the US. New York, LA, and even Atlanta’s not as cheap as it used to be. And Seattle’s one of our bases. And we all know those prices are going up, so people have to do what they have to do. It’s a lot to ask people to uproot their lives and their jobs and their families for a job like this. And also, it’s not affordable anywhere. So we have to make sacrifices for our dollar to stretch more. And sometimes that means getting on a flight to New York or back to LA or Seattle and living somewhere else just so we can have some semblance of a decent quality of life.

Maximillian Alvarez: Hell yeah. Well, like I said, we’re going to dig into all that in a minute. And, again, I get that. I have family members, close family members who work with airlines. Including one – I won’t mention their name – But they just went through the whole program and became a Delta flight attendant. They were really proud, and we were very proud of them for that accomplishment. And it’s not a lie to say that there is a certain reputation or history or tradition that seems to come with this job and this industry. Whether you’re a pilot; There’s a great tradition and history there. And same goes with flight attendants. We’re hoping to have the great Nell McShane Wulfhart on, who has a book out that everyone should read, but I’m saying it on the public feed because if and when we’re able to talk to Nell, that’ll be for a bonus episode.

But you should go check out her book, The Great Stewardess Rebellion, which came out in April of this year. Really awesome and fascinating book and one of many that if you start going down this rabbit hole, learning about Pan Am from then till now, it’s a very fascinating history. And so I can definitely understand that. But where I’m going with this is, when you were still growing up in Decatur… I know that Atlanta is a major air travel hub. Was that central at all to your life and what you wanted to do when you grew up, or did you fall into this industry later in life?

Jonnie Lane: I absolutely fell into it later in life. Even though Delta is a big part of Georgia and Atlanta history and culture, I had never thought about being a flight attendant before. This job and this entire industry, it never crossed my mind. My mom is an educator. She’s a retired teacher of 35 years. My dad is a truck driver and general handyman. My sister and I, growing up, we had a strong middle class background. And so my parents, they were like, we want you to go to college, get your education, and join the workforce like everyone else.

But aviation wasn’t on my mind. After I graduated high school, I went to Auburn University. War [inaudible] Eagle. And I got my bachelor’s degree in English, and then I went on to get a master’s degree in literature from the University of Tennessee. So I had fully planned on taking a quick break and then going back to get my PhD because I just love learning. I love academia, and that’s just where I felt most at home.

But I had been in school… I went straight through. So I got my master’s degree at a very young age, and I was like, oh, okay. I haven’t experienced anything. I hadn’t seen the world. So I got the opportunity to travel to China. Spent some time there. I was able to do a quick teaching course at Tsinghua University in Beijing, and it just changed my world. It blew my mind. So when I came back to Atlanta, the world, after you travel so much, it feels very small.

And so I wanted that feeling again of being in a place where everyone’s different and it’s exciting and fresh and new, and exploring new cultures. And also, I needed a job. So it was that year, 2007, 2008. Older millennials know like myself, that there weren’t a lot of opportunities. So I had to move back in with my older sister and she was like, you need to get a job. And I’m like, I have a master’s degree in English. I want to go back to school. I had applied to grad school and I had gotten in, but I was like, you know what? I need something in the interim. I need to make some money. What can I do? Oh, why don’t I just be a flight attendant? Let me try that for a few years, then I’ll go back to school. And here I am almost 15 years later as a flight attendant, and I haven’t looked back since. It’s been an amazing experience. My family loves it. They love to travel. They love my job, and I enjoy it too.

Maximillian Alvarez: All right. So we got to take a pause and talk about this because they’re… Folks who are listening to this who know about me know that I’ve got to ask about this, because you and I have pretty similar stories in that regard. Also an elder millennial who was spat out into the recession. I graduated from undergrad in 2009. I didn’t really have a plan for what to do. And I just happened to fall into a master’s program in England where I had studied abroad for a year. I was lucky enough to have that opportunity as an undergrad, and then I made friends there. I had a then-girlfriend there. I had friends in a department there of Russian literature. So Russian literature was my gateway drug into going full literature nerd.

Like you, I think I had that same excitement and exhilaration that came with feeling both very foreign to a place or a field, but also feeling very intimately connected to it. Every time I walked into a Slavic department, people would be like, are you lost? And I’d be like, no. Listen, I know I’m Brown, but I know my shit. I’ve read a lot of Russian literature. But yeah, there was something that really always spoke to me. I could not read enough big Russian novels at that point in my life. And then, as years wore on, that love trickled out into more American literature, Mexican literature, French, and so on and so forth. But, like you, I was very much a young, voracious literary nerd. So I have to ask, when you were at Auburn and then at your master’s program, what kind of literature was it that really excited you? What were you reading at the time?

Jonnie Lane: Well, my mentor at Auburn, Dr. Backscheider, she is the preeminent scholar of Daniel Defoe, who wrote Robinson Crusoe. So I studied with her, for a while, 18th century restoration literature. But that didn’t call to me. So when I went to the University of Tennessee, I studied with another professor, Dr. Jennings. I still remember their names. I can’t believe it. And she is the preeminent Toni Morrison scholar. And so that was an amazing experience, and I fell into modern American literature and African American literature.

I tried to avoid African American literature. I just was like, oh, Jonnie, that’s so stereotypical. You’re Black and they expect you to study African American literature. No, do something else. So I tried to do early American, but I just felt called to some of these stories that had so much rich history and use of language and culture, and it allowed me to learn so much about myself and my own people.

And so I gravitated towards Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and, of course, all these big names. And even now, more current, Colson Whitehead. People like that who were doing so much with the written word and they were able to tell our stories in such a unique and profound way. And I fell in love with them and their use of language. And that’s what my heart was really drawn to.

But as you know, as a student of literature, we love just about everything. I will read just about anything. And now that I can read for fun, I love romance novels. I’m a huge sci-fi nerd, so we can talk about sci-fi suggestions and all of that stuff. So I just read whatever I can get my hands on when I have the time. So don’t say anything when you guys see me on the airplane reading a book. I’ll get your drink, I’ll get your snacks, but I have to finish a chapter first, and then I’ll get to you.

Maximillian Alvarez: Man, it’s so fun thinking back to that time. Even now, when I have the chance to read and get into a book, which sadly doesn’t happen nearly as much as I would like to these days… And I genuinely feel it. There are days where I’m just like, man, why am I bummed out? And it’s like, oh, because I haven’t read a book from start to finish in so long, and I used to do that so much. And there’s so many books in this house that it just feels like I’m constantly walking past these reminders of who I once was.

But anyway, I won’t be too self-pitying there. I just do really miss reading and I guess I just… Yeah, it makes you think that, man, for anyone listening to this, if you’re in that period of your life, take as much advantage of it as you can. Because it really is a unique point in your young life when you can read voraciously without as much of a care of what the point of reading is.

You can really just love it genuinely and immediately. Something did change. You mentioned that you were thinking of going back to do a PhD. I eventually did. There were a number of years in between my master’s and the PhD, so that’s when I was working as a temp at these warehouses back home. I was a pizza delivery guy. I was a waiter in Chicago. Doing odd jobs here and there. Eventually I made my way back to academia to get my PhDs. I loved it in a lot of respects. But there was something that was different about reading at that point when it was like, oh, this is my job now. Or I felt like a truffle pig. I have to be looking for something unique to say about this. I can’t just love it in the moment. Now I have so many other people in my head telling me, oh, this person wrote a book about that 50 years ago.

But anyway, the point is, I think about when I first read Richard Wright’s Native Son, that book just blew my face off. It was so good. And also, as a Russian literature fanatic, there was something so exhilarating about reading that book because there’s so much of Dostoevsky and Crime and Punishment in there, but it still feels so authentically American and really telling of Black life in a white, segregated world where parts of the population are dehumanized and criminalized it. It was such an exciting thing for me to read at that point in my life. And actually, now that I think about it, it’s got to be up there in my top five books that I think I’ve read.

Jonnie Lane: Agreed. And I remember studying, briefly, Eastern European literature as well. Mostly some of the Russian authors. And like you said, these stories are unique in a way, but also they’re not. Everyone has the same feelings and concerns of disillusionment. Where am I in the world? What is my place? What am I doing here? What does this mean? And we’re all trying to do the same thing and get by and survive and answer these same questions. And there’s so many commonalities among different genres and time periods. More than we think. So yeah, I totally get it. Finding those relationships between works that seem completely different on the surface, but they’re actually just telling the same stories. We all just want to be seen as uniquely human in and of ourselves in this crazy world.

Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. That’s beautifully put. And it reminds me of that great James Baldwin quote that always really resonated with me, which I guess makes the very point that he’s articulating there. But he says something – I’m paraphrasing – But he’s like, when you’re growing up, you feel like yours is the most intense pain that’s ever been felt. That no one has experienced the kind of heartbreak or agony or fear that you yourself are experiencing. Then you read, and then you hear your own words back to you, but they were written 200 years ago. And I think it’s a really beautiful thing that that doesn’t diminish your experience.

It reminds you that, what you just said, that we are all connected. And, in fact, there is something preciously human about the things that bind us and the experiences that feel so singular. For them to be connected to… To imagine that someone in Jim Crow America or 19th century St. Petersburg could have those same thoughts, there’s something incredibly beautiful in that. You see yourself in the stars kind of way.

Don’t worry, listeners, I’m not going to get too lame and poetic here, but it’s not every day that I get to chat to another literature nerd about the books that we fell in love with, so I just had to indulge for a second. And just a final note on that, now that I think about it, what we’re going to have to do, dear Jonnie, maybe you and I should have a book club. Because I have not read this long lost book by Richard Wright that they just published, The Man Who Lived Underground.

Jonnie Lane: Yes.

Maximillian Alvarez: Have you checked that one out yet?

Jonnie Lane: I have not read that. I was so excited to hear about that. So I think you’re onto something. We definitely need to have a book club. A mini book club.

Maximillian Alvarez: Hell yeah. Okay. So we’re going to have to read that and have you back on and chat about it, because that’s also a Dostoevsky reference. There’s a famous really short book that Dostoevsky wrote called Notes From Underground, and it’s about this crazy dude who lives literally in the basement of a bar, and he’s always looking through the cracks and being really creepy about it. But anyway, it would be really fun to chat about that. Okay, so we’ll put a pin in that, and let’s get back to you.

So walk me through what it was starting at Delta. Like you said, you needed a job, you hadn’t thought about doing this work beforehand, but then you started, and here we are 15 years later. So walk us through your first couple weeks. What was it like acclimating to that kind of work?

Jonnie Lane: Gosh, when I look back on those years and how I got started, I’m like, oh my God, Jonnie, you are insane. What were you thinking? I got hired, I finished training, which was intense, but a lot of fun. Made some great relationships, friendships I still have to this day. But it was a different time back then. There were iPhones and Blackberries – That’s a throwback from the past, people. Yes. I had a Blackberry, so no Google Maps or anything.

So I get hired, Delta says, hey, you know what? Pack your bags. You’re going to New York. Thinking like, okay, this sounds great. Pack up everything. Parents help me U-Haul it up to New York City. I get to Queens. Here I am. And I am a Southern belle in the big city. I have no clue what I’m doing. I’m with my bus map and subway map, looking at the signs, trying to figure out how to get to airports, how to get back to my apartment, where to find food. It was bananas and it was crazy. And grown up Jonnie now would do a lot more planning and try to have a lot more structure. But back then, early 20s, it was an adventure. It was so much fun.

But there were definitely some difficult times and some challenges. New York is definitely the place that I say raised me. Even though I’m from Georgia and that is my home, I really came of age being here in New York. I had to learn things on the fly and learn to be tough and not to trust people, be a good judge of character and stand up for myself. That’s what I really learned here. I became more assertive and found my way.

And so that helped me in the job so much, because it’s so tough being a new flight attendant. You’re excited, you’re happy about the job, but then you get thrown into the deep end and it’s either sink or swim. It’s just one of those jobs where you learn on the fly. And the toughest part about our job when you first get started is you get sick so much.

I had been the sickest I had ever been in my entire life my first six months to a year of flying. Your immune system just gets beat up because we see so many people every day and we’re going back and through different time zones so you’re not able to sleep or eat healthy or get enough exercise, drink enough water. And I could easily see a thousand people in the span of three days. If people think about how many people are on an airplane… Let’s say close to 200. I’m working three flights a day. I’ve already seen 600 plus people that day, then the next day, and then the next. It is crazy. So that was just sensory overload with meeting lots of people, being in a new job, being in a new city. And it was exciting at first, but it really hit me those first two to three years.

It was tough. I always tell people, it is true. If you can make it here, New York, or really in this job as a flight attendant, you can do just about anything. You get challenged in so many ways. And that’s not just with getting used to the lifestyle and the traveling, but also with people. Anyone who’s worked a customer facing job, you’re going to know what I’m talking about. Dealing with people, first of all, is tough, but when they’re traveling, that is a really true test of character. It’s taken me a good 15 years to really understand people and know how to deal with them.

Maximillian Alvarez: I have so many questions.

Jonnie Lane: I know that was a lot.

Maximillian Alvarez: No, no. Because every word that you were saying, I was like, God, yeah, that makes sense. I hadn’t thought about it. But when you’re going from little two-legged mammal walking around in one place to flying around the world in different timezones and different altitudes, your body must just be like, dude, what the fuck? – Pardon my French – What is happening to me? The thing that you mentioned that has made a lot more sense to people now having gone through two and a half years of a deadly pandemic, you’re sitting in those closed quarters. You notice very quickly if people are coughing and sneezing all around you. It’s a wild work environment to have. And I imagine it would take me at least 15 years to get used to it. But I don’t even know if I have the fortitude to manage all those different things that you’re talking about.

So again, we’ll circle back in the end to the organizing effort, but while we’re on the subject, I was wondering if we could drill down more on the day-to-day reality of a flight attendant at Delta. First, let’s talk about pre pandemic times. What does a typical day” even look like for you? What are folks seeing and what are they not seeing about all the work that you and your coworkers do?

Jonnie Lane: Right. Yeah. There’s a lot of things that people don’t see and they don’t understand because they only see us on the airplane. But there’s a lot of prep and time going into us even getting to the airport. We usually have to get up two to three hours before. So those of you who are sleepy on those early morning flights that leave at 6:00 AM and you’re groggy, we’ve already been up three or four hours before then getting to the airport, checking in, doing our briefings with the pilots and the other flight attendants, checking our supplies and emergency equipment. We’ve done all of that before we even get to the airplane. So you get a flight attendant, by the time you get to your flight, whatever time it is, who’s almost had a pretty full day by that time. So that’s something that people don’t realize.

We spend a lot of time before we get to the airport prepping even for just a short flight. I fly a lot of international now. That’s even more time to get ready for, but there’s a lot of prep time ahead before the flight even leaves. And so that’s a big part of the day-to-day that people don’t realize. And then I was just talking with some of my colleagues about being on the airplane. You all see us, we do the safety demo. People are on their phones not paying attention. We’ve gotten over that. That’s par for the course. Even though we strongly encourage you all to at least watch the safety demo. I know you all are frequent flyers and if you’ve heard one, you’ve heard them all, but it’s really important. Please pay attention.

I was just saying to another colleague that people don’t see us. And what I mean by they don’t see us, it’s like I could be standing in front of someone asking them what they want to drink, waving in their face, and they don’t see me at all. And I have to move on and serve someone else. And then it’s like, oh wait a minute, you skipped me. And I’m saying that to say, not that I need to be seen or I want your attention, but it’s just that bit of invisibility. Until your needs are met and your needs are being served, I’m invisible to you. And that’s something that I want to get across to people, that we are there for your safety. We want to help you, we want you to have a good time, but we also want people to understand that we’re people too, and that we want to be seen and understood and heard. And we’re not just bodies in a uniform.

Like sitting down to eat and having a break and getting off of our feet because we’re on our feet all day. We don’t get a regular break like people get a lunch break to sit down, take a break, smoke a cigarette, use the bathroom, whatever that is. We are on that airplane, and we have to do all of that in that same work environment. And so just letting people know that we’re human and we need a break and we need our space and we get frustrated. That’s some of the things that I don’t think people realize. And that’s understandable. Travel is hard. People are traveling with their kids or trying to corral everyone for a vacation or going to a funeral, or just going to work. You’re so preoccupied.

But yeah. Just that awareness that other people, other passengers are around you, and your flight attendants are people too. And we are around you and we’re tired. We can be cranky. We try not to. But we just want to be seen and understood just like they do. So yeah, that’s something major that I definitely wanted to get across, and thank you for giving me that opportunity to just vent for a minute to let people know about that.

Maximillian Alvarez: No. Seriously, I’m riveted listening to you describe this because, again, we only see it from the customer side, or most of us, that is. And when I think about it, being on an airplane is the most… It’s like the metaphor for how we treat working people is made material in the most on the nose way that I can think of. Because you literally have a situation where you can press a button and then suddenly it’s like, poof, here’s the worker to tend to your needs. And then when those needs are met, they disappear behind your seat. It’s like they walk into the shadow realm and suddenly don’t exist anymore until you press that damn button again.

Jonnie Lane: Yes.

Maximillian Alvarez: There were times where I felt like that as a waiter, where I would see people… You would have to look around the corner and see, oh, are any of my tables looking for me? If so, I gotta poof. I got to appear from behind the curtain and be like, I’m here. It’s like rubbing the genie lamp. What will it be this time, sir? But you’re right. I don’t think that it was really venting at all. It’s giving us that side of the story that we never really get to hear. And as I’ve said many times on this show, and I think in my new book with interviews with workers during COVID, my ultimate goal is to make it impossible for anyone to ignore the whole human being behind every name tag and job title. And here we are, listening to you talk about… It’s not just like, yeah, you press that button and you get your drink. That person is managing so many different things at once, doesn’t really get a legit break, and your workplace is moving at a hundred miles a second, and it’s a lot. And so I really appreciate you walking us through that.

And before we add onto that, doing all of that during a pandemic, I just wanted to ask a question if you’re comfortable talking about it. We don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to. But, obviously, working in the airline industry, particularly as a flight attendant, like a lot of other customer facing service industry type jobs, you can deal with a lot of abuse and harassment from customers. Back in the days when we called them stewardesses, that was just an accepted part of the job. So I guess I just wanted to ask you if… For folks listening, like you said, yeah, you should listen to the safety video. It’s really important. Are there other points that you think folks should sit and think about in terms of what you and other flight attendants do have to put up with in terms of dealing with customers on a day-to-day basis?

Jonnie Lane: Yes, of course. And this will be my turn to plug Nell Wulfhart’s book, The Great Stewardess Rebellion, because she tells an amazing story about the flight attendants of the past and what they had to deal with and being truly seen as, to be blunt, sex objects there for entertainment and service. And though that has shifted somewhat now in a postmodern world, that’s still somewhat very true. The image of the flight attendant has changed a bit. We’re not all young, thin, white, and unmarried. It’s a lot more diverse. But people do see us in the same way. We’re there to serve. We’re there for entertainment. And so in addition to that, we would love for people to pay attention and see us, but again, remember to respect us like you would your… I don’t know. Your dentist or your doctor.

I always tell people… Because we get poked a lot and touched a lot. And I think that’s because people are sitting and we’re standing, and it just happens to be at hip level where people can touch us. And so I’ve been touched on my butt so many times by men and women that it’s so triggering to me. And so when I tell people, excuse me, please don’t touch me. I can easily have a hundred people touch me in a day.

Everyone gets super offended as if my body and my person is either free for them to touch, or they don’t consider that at all. Like, oh, I can’t touch you? Well, no. Do you go to your cashier at the grocery store and touch them on their hip and rub them if you need help finding an item in the grocery store? No. You don’t do that. You just ask politely. You say, excuse me, and you get their attention. But for some strange reason people don’t see that with us. And like I mentioned it with either the invisibility factor, or they feel like we are accessible to them because we’re there to serve and entertain, it’s something that really touches a nerve, and I don’t think people are aware that they do that. And that’s my major one.

And another thing is for people to remember that they’re on an airplane and that we are not… If they run out of something, that’s not on the flight attendants. We are there to help you for your safety, but it is not a grocery store. So yelling at us for things like that in the moment – I understand people are frustrated. It’s been a long day to get through TSA, to get to the airport. They’ve already been frustrated. But becoming someone else’s punching bag, that takes a toll on us as well. And you think it might just be one flight. That could be the fifth or sixth person that’s yelled at me that day. And that takes an emotional toll as well, to take on that energy. There’s only so much brushing off we can do.

So another pull behind the curtain, when we get to our layovers and we’re able to take a break and decompress, some of us don’t talk to people for a few days. On the layover we’ll go in our hotel rooms and just shut out the world. Or we get home, we tell our loved ones and our friends, you know what, I need a day or two away from people because it’s just been so much. I’ve taken on so much energy, so much negativity from some people, that it can just be so much. So there are a lot of mental health issues in our industry as well. I don’t know if people are aware of that. The suicide rate among flight attendants is incredibly high. Incredibly high, for some of those reasons.

Maximillian Alvarez: Jesus. Again, hearing you lay it all out, I can understand why. And not to equate the two experiences, but I remember… This is me trying to understand what you’re telling me by looking back at my own experiences. And I remember when I was a waiter at a Persian restaurant called Reza’s in Chicago. The location that I worked at doesn’t exist anymore because the manager was terrible and ran the franchise into the ground. But like you’re saying, there were a lot of parts of the job that I genuinely liked. There’s a comradery among service staff that is very tight, and you can have a whole lot of fun with your coworkers. You get good food on your lunch break. If you are waiting on tables that are amicable, you’re there to give them a good time and help make their… If they’re on a date, you’re there to help make it better. If they’re celebrating something, you’re there to help them do that. When you’re in the middle of it, you genuinely feel invested in playing that role.

Jonnie Lane: Absolutely.

Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. I think that was one of the things that struck me. Because when I was a pizza delivery guy, it felt like I was a different person in the car than I was walking up to a door. I was like, okay, mask on, smile on, get up there, get that tip. Then I go back to the car and I light a cigarette and I play my loud rap music and I take my sweet time getting back to the restaurant. But when I was a waiter it was different. It did feel like a performance, but a performance that even I was convinced by. And I did genuinely like a lot of my regulars and so on and so forth.

But I remember noticing, after we would close – And I didn’t live far from the restaurant. It was just a five minute walk. So I would get home and I would just collapse on the couch and couldn’t move. It was like suddenly eight hours worth of all that human interaction just hit me. And I felt what you were saying that sometimes you’re just like, I can’t even be around people because my body just needs to recover from all of that intense interaction and customer pleasing and dealing with angry customers and so on and so forth that I just did.

I had never really thought about it in the terms that you put them in, but I think that that really resonated with me. That maybe there’s just something to having that concentrated of an interaction with so many people for such an extended period of time that, yeah, you do get a bit of an overload when your shift’s finally done.

Jonnie Lane: Absolutely. And I don’t want people to get the impression that we don’t love the job and that we don’t love what we do. I absolutely do. And the best parts of my day are getting people who are on and… It could be their first flight or their 100th, it doesn’t matter to me. I just want them to have a good time wherever they’re going, or just to be comfortable or to know that they’re safe on my flights. And that’s the best part. That is absolutely the majority. I’m one of those very lucky flight attendants who’s had very few unruly passengers to deal with. I know a lot of my colleagues across the industry can’t say the same, unfortunately. But I can count a handful of times where I’ve ever had to kick someone off. It is the last thing I want to do. I want people to have a great time on my flights.

But even that, wanting people to have a good time just takes so much energy out of you, and it affects your emotional and mental stability with the day-to-day. I get it. Working in a restaurant. Or like I said earlier, anything where you’re customer facing, it can just take a lot out of you. It really can. Even the best jobs can take a lot out of you with the day-to-day and dealing with being an adult, dealing with your outside life as well. It can be a lot.

Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah man. Being an adult is a lot. They didn’t tell us this. Well I guess they did. They tried to warn us, but as a kid you don’t hear it. There’s no way to prepare yourself for the ass kicking adulthood gives all of us.

Jonnie Lane: Zero stars. Do not recommend.

Maximillian Alvarez: No. Exactly. Who do I file a complaint with about all of this? Yeah. It’s a skill. Like everything else, it’s a skill, and it takes energy to practice that skill. And you notice it when people do it well. And so I guess what I’m really saying, dear listener, is show appreciation for that. Respect that for what it is and don’t be a dick, right?

Jonnie Lane: Right.

Maximillian Alvarez: Don’t be a dick about it. We’re all there. Like you said, I think that another added layer to this that makes a lot of sense is that we all know what it’s like to fly, or a lot of us do, and it’s not always the best experience. Like you said, it’s stressful. I would normally fly in and out of LAX, and I hate LAX. It’s a goddamn nightmare. But by the time you’re in that seat, you’ve already gone through security. You may have been stuck in traffic trying to get to the airport. So you’re already frustrated.

And on top of that, you have that customer mentality just like if you’re at a restaurant or a million other places. But you have that mentality of, I am the paying customer, I’m the one whose needs need to be catered to. And, of course, you as a flight attendant are doing your best to cater to those needs while also doing the other side of your job, which is keeping everyone safe, making sure that all the boxes are ticked, that everyone in the plane, not just one or two people, has what they need. It’s a lot to juggle at once.

But there is something about that mentality that can bring out the worst in us. And I say us” because I felt it too. There are times where I’ll just get irrationally mad at something, and then I stop and think, I’m like, Max, you’re not the center of the universe, here. Yeah. You’re in a restaurant full of a bunch of other people. If your waiter forgot something, it’s not because they have a grudge against you. Maybe they’re just overworked. Maybe they legitimately forgot. Pump the brakes here for a second.

But that feels particularly concentrated when you’re on an airplane. Maybe it’s because air tickets cost an arm and a leg. The experience of travel is so involved. But again, I think that we saw some of that really come to a head when COVID hit. And I guess I just wanted to ask… We don’t have to go deep into it, relive any traumas or stuff like that. But we’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about what all of this stuff that we’re talking about here looked like for you and your colleagues during COVID-19.

Jonnie Lane: Oh yeah. That was some of the roughest flying a lot of us had ever experienced. I talked to 30-plus-year flight attendants, and they said that was some of the worst they had ever seen. And they had been through 9/11 and those post years. So for them to say that, I really feel truly that it was some of the roughest times. In the beginning, the airplanes were empty and the airports were empty. And I think at first it seemed nice. We were like, oh wow. This is a nice empty flight. I’m sure passengers as well, the few that were flying. I had been on flights where there were two people on there, but people were able to stretch out and kick back, and they had four or five flight attendants to just tend to their needs back and forth.

But then we realized it very quickly became somewhat apocalyptic. Going from a place like Atlanta, the busiest airport in the world, and seeing no one in there. Like four or five passengers in one concourse, or here at JFK. It was scary. It felt like being in a movie. Or being on an airplane with one or two other people. That was so unsettling and so unnerving. Being on layovers. I remember being on a layover in San Antonio, and it was like a ghost town. It was so strange. So that part, we call it a break from the crowded airplanes and staff. It wasn’t as relaxing and fun as it may seem. You may think like, oh, your workplace is empty, you could kick back. No. In that sense it was really strange. And a lot of people, including myself, it was hard to deal with.

And so then moving into that next phase of travel picking back up, but there are the mask mandates. People coming on board and dealing with that. Having to wear a mask from the moment they get into the airport until the end of their travels. I understand it was hard for everyone. And unfortunately we became the face and the punching bag for that frustration. Like I said, I was very fortunate. I didn’t have anyone get violent with me, but I did have several confrontations where people were frustrated and mad and they wanted to take their mask off, or other passengers were policing other people and making them put their mask on. And I’ve had to separate quite a few passengers during that time as well. And that was some of the hardest, because you just didn’t know. That was the worst for flight attendants across the industry.

I know for a fact anxiety levels went up. A lot of us started seeing mental health professionals and therapists. A lot of us still are not okay from that time period because it was so stress inducing. I would be in my car in the parking lot in the airport and I would cry before I would come to work just because I didn’t know what I was going to get. Would this be the day that someone is going to punch me in the face because I asked them to put their mask back up? And that was every single flight, every time I had to come back to work.

And yeah, it’s traumatizing. I’m still dealing with the effects of that. I never ground my teeth before, but now I do. And I went to the dentist and they’re like, are you okay? You’ve ground your back teeth almost smooth. And I was like, no. I’m clenching my jaw. I’m crying because my work environment is so unstable. It was just so unstable.

Like I said, I get it. I know everybody was frustrated with the masks, but I don’t know how we became the target for that, for just doing our job. It really made a lot of us sad and frustrated and upset, because we were just trying to be protected. That’s all. I also think that people don’t realize that we have family members and people that we want to protect as well. So with traveling to other cities that had different mask mandates and different regulations to others that are a little bit more strict. It was stressful on ourselves. It was stressful on our families.

My family, they’re incredibly understanding but my dad was fighting cancer, and my mom had other… She’s immunocompromised as well. I didn’t see them for almost two years because I didn’t want to put them at risk. But other people who had husbands and wives and children, my friends told me that their spouses would make them change in the garage before they came into the house.

So there was a lot that happened to us in that time that we didn’t get the chance to talk about, because I know people were focused on our first responders as far as healthcare workers and other people in those industries who kept everything going. But flight attendants were there as well. We were fighting as essential workers trying to get people to where they needed to go, medical equipment where it needed to go, and we were exposed. So that’s something that I don’t think a lot of people realized as well. And it hurt us that people took their frustrations out on us in such a violent way as an industry. We are still healing from that hurt that people just unleashed all their anger out on us and we were just trying to do our jobs, and that’s it. Yeah. Sorry. Got a little emotional talking about that.

Maximillian Alvarez: No. How could you not? First of all, I want to thank you for talking openly about it, because I know it’s not easy, and I always feel a little guilty asking about it. Again, I say this as someone who just published a damn book with 10 interviews with folks that we recorded at the end of year one of COVID. And that was a very emotional experience for me, recording those, talking about my experience with the folks that I spoke to. And now, again, it’s like I’m reliving all of that when folks talk to me about the book.

And I want to be clear to everyone who’s listening to this, it’s important that we don’t just think of this as like, oh, that was a bad time. We’re over it now. Let’s not look in the rear view mirror. Because as Jonnie said, again, there’s still a lot of lingering effects there. I think there’s still a lot of things that have changed. We haven’t really sat down and thought about what it means that the ways that we relate to one another have changed. The ways that we understand what our government and businesses and the media think about us and our safety. There’s a lot of things that we saw that we can’t unsee.

But I think it’s important for us to talk through these things and actually process what we’ve all been through the past two and a half years. Because otherwise that shit’s going to come up in other ways. And like you said, you’re still grinding your teeth. I am dependent on ZzzQuil, to give an example. I can’t go to sleep anymore unless I take ZzzQuil, and I hate that and I need to get off of it. But that happened during the pandemic. It got to a point where it’s like my brain would not shut off the anxiety. I was also, very much like a lot of folks who were able to work remotely, I found myself working more than I ever had. And so I would be working until midnight and I would have to shut my brain off, and so I would drink ZzzQuil. That’s just one small example of a lasting effect that is still carried over to now.

Again, it’s just like, if we don’t actually talk through these things, we’re not going to learn the lessons that I think we should learn from them. We’re not going to think about how we can do and be better with one another. And I think anyone who flies regularly or irregularly, really take what Jonnie’s saying to heart and think about, again, what they’re going through, what their job is, how you play into the larger situation on a given flight. And just try to, again, try to be kind. Try to be understanding. And that’s really the takeaway here from the customer side.

But let’s talk about with the… Because I could talk to you for days, Jonnie. But I know that, again, you’ve got another flight coming up and I want you to get some rest while you can. But let’s talk about how workers are dealing with that on the worker side. And what it would mean to address these workplace issues, these working conditions, collectively, as part of a bargaining unit. That is what this unionization push at Delta is about.

And it’s not the first one, as I mentioned in the introduction to this episode. And I think I read this quote from the great Michael Sainato’s report in The Guardian of it. But just for folks listening, to remind you, Michael writes, Only about 20% of the workforce at Delta is represented by a labor union, consisting of pilots and dispatchers, compared with 86% of the workforce at American Airlines, 85% at United, 82% at Southwest, 86% at Alaska, and 48% at JetBlue.”

Now I wanted to turn it over to you, Jonnie, and ask if you could talk us through the current organizing efforts, what folks are talking about, what listeners should be on the lookout for. But by way of getting there, you said you started in 2008?

Jonnie Lane: Yes.

Maximillian Alvarez: Okay, so you were there for the 2010 vote?

Jonnie Lane: I was.

Maximillian Alvarez: Okay. We don’t have to go into the whole history there, but could you talk to folks a little bit about that moment, and then maybe compare it to what’s going on right now?

Jonnie Lane: Yes, of course. Without going into, like you said, the big history, because there was a lot there, in 2008 was a big merger between Northwest and Delta. And so I was hired as a Delta flight attendant. And so Northwest was unionized with AFA, Association of Flight Attendants. So a union vote had to come up. And so, me being a new flight attendant, excited about the job and listening to what my company’s saying. They’re saying like, oh, you know what? We’re merging with this new airline. They have a union, but you know what, we’re going to take care of you. You don’t need that. See how you guys like it. If a year or two you don’t like it, you could always bring in a union. But once you get one in, it’s so hard to get one out. So new to the workforce. Scared of that. So that really colored my impression of flight attendant unions and unionized flight attendants. So I was like, you know what? No. That’s not for me. And, I am ashamed to admit, I voted no in our first union vote.

And so fast forward years up until now, spoiler alert, it didn’t get better. Conditions deteriorated, not rapidly, but over the years. And then here we are moving into COVID and post COVID. Some of my coworkers and I, we realize this is not okay. Having to fight for certain safety protections and to even wear masks on the airplane. Things that should have just been easy and in place for us, we had to say, hey, management, no, this is not okay. Our safety is important. We’re the ones on the aircraft doing the work every day. We’re the ones who are getting assaulted by the passengers. Take care of us. You said you were, and you’re not. So we decided to do something about that.

We saw that other flight attendants were able to say, hey, no, that’s not okay. We need gloves, we need masks, we need protocols. And they were able to get that done because they had a united voice, one with power behind them in the workplace. And unfortunately we didn’t have that same structure. So a few friends and I – I always shout out my friend Christina Simonin. Without her I wouldn’t be here. She was the one who brought me on the campaign and really pushed me to be more vocal and more active.

And so that’s how we are here today with our big union drive. This has been a long time coming. But really, through COVID we noticed the changes and the differences between what other flight attendants who are at union carriers were getting. They were able to use their voice and demand certain things for their safety and to protect their lives and their livelihood. And we didn’t have that. So we were like, we need to do something about it. And unionizing, we decided that was the way to go.

Maximillian Alvarez: Hell yeah. And we’re talking like 23,000 flight attendants, right?

Jonnie Lane: Oh yeah.

Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. So this is a big deal. How do I put this? Delta’s feelings about unions are very well known, I guess is how I would put it. Delta has not been shy. Of course, most companies make it known that they don’t believe that a union is right for their workers, but Delta definitely goes that extra mile to make it clear that they don’t think a union is right. Folks will probably remember, just to give one example, the anti-union posters that were posted up in break rooms two, three years ago saying, why pay union dues when you could buy a PlayStation?

Jonnie Lane: Yes.

Maximillian Alvarez: It’s like, wow. Okay. So that’s what we’re talking about here. And so I wanted to ask, by way of rounding out, because it’s been so great talking to you, and I really hope that we can A, have you back on to geek out about Richard Wright, but definitely we’ll be keeping folks up to date on this important unionization campaign at Delta to unionize with the Association of Flight Attendants. But I wanted to ask what has the response been? What does the organizing look like? I remember talking to Sarah Nelson about this at one point. The card check is a bit different, so folks may not know about that. But basically, yeah, could you give us a bit of a rundown of what the response to the effort has been, what the organizing looks like, and what folks out there listening can do to show support for you and then all of the flight attendants at Delta?

Jonnie Lane: Yes. Of course. I’ve been organizing with the union for over six years now. So we’ve been putting in a lot of hard work trying to inform our 23,000 flight attendants about what we’re doing. And that is a monumental task. I don’t think people realize that this will be one of the largest organizing efforts in modern labor history, organizing such a large work group. So we have our work cut out for us. And so, according to our rules that we’re governed under – Not going to get into the weeds on that – But we have to get 50% plus one in order to trigger for a vote. So that is close to 13,000, almost 14,000 flight attendants that we have to get to support our unionizing drive. And we are going hard in the paint to try to get everyone on board. It is a lot.

And so we have several bases across the country. New York. Atlanta is our hub. And just to give you guys a perspective of how many flight attendants that is, my base has close to 5,000 flight attendants alone, and Atlanta is the largest base. They have almost 7,000 flight attendants. So we really have large ground to cover with a lot of people that we have to talk to.

Because doing organizing, it’s really about one-on-one conversations and making those connections and building that trust. That’s hard to do with so many people who are all over the country and all over the world. And in past campaigns, we focused on New York and Detroit and Minneapolis as good liberal union towns, strongholds, but we ignored Atlanta, because Atlanta’s in the South, and the South is notoriously anti-union.

But this time we decided to focus on Atlanta as well. And as the country can see with Amazon workers and trying to unionize in Alabama and unionizing stores. Apple, one of the first stores in Georgia just got unionized. There is a movement there as well. So we started to direct our attention to Atlanta, not to leave anyone behind there, and to have an opportunity for those flight attendants to join our campaign and to come on board. So we’re doing a lot of work, spreading out, talking to people.

And this time it’s different. I know it is and I feel it, because there’s so much public support. People like you, Max, who are allowing me to tell my story and to reach so many people. It’s amazing. And we truly feel the love and the support every day. Passengers are saying, hey, you guys, go get them. You’re going to get that union. And I absolutely feel it and I understand it.

And so as a Delta AFA activist on the ground organizing day in and day out, it’s tough, but I know we can get it done, because the world is ready. Everyone is ready. Workers are stepping up and the time is now. And so, as passengers, customers, and supporters, what you all can do is, when you get on a Delta flight, show your support. If you are in a union say, hey, you know what? I know you guys are unionizing. I love my union. You guys should unionize too. Simple as that. We also have a website, deltaafa​.org/​s​u​pport. You can go there, and we have a page for you to sign up as a supporter. We’ll send you supplies. You could wear a big button that says, I’m a Delta AFA supporter. And when you get on a flight, we know like, hey, that person has our back and they want us to unionize. I know the world does as well. And so we absolutely feel it. We love the support. You could also reach out to us on Twitter, on social media. We’re on Instagram, @afa, we’re on Twitter, @DeltaAFA and AFA CWA.

Everyone knows Sarah Nelson. So if you want to get involved, you can always tag her on Twitter at @FlyingWithSarah. She’s awesome. She’s one of the people. She’s not inaccessible. So definitely make sure you reach out to her. And you could always find a Delta flight attendant on Twitter as well. We are out there spreading the word and sharing our story. And thank you so much, Max, for allowing me to tell mine.

Maximillian Alvarez is editor-in-chief at the Real News Network and host of the podcast Working People, available at InThe​se​Times​.com. He is also the author of The Work of Living: Working People Talk About Their Lives and the Year the World Broke.

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