MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Unions for thousands of flight attendants and ground workers at the old Northwest Airlines said they would seek a vote to represent those groups at Delta, taking advantage of new election rules that make it easier for them to win.
The federal rule that took effect Thursday covers airline and railroad workers. Delta Air Lines Inc. would be the biggest and most visible prize for organized labor, but union drives at other companies are expected to benefit from the new rule, too. On Thursday, the Teamsters said they filed for an election to cover 570 mechanics at Atlantic Southeast Airlines.
Under the old rule, it took votes by a majority of the entire group of workers to approve a union. That meant that workers who didn’t vote counted as “no” votes. Now, unions can be voted in by a majority of workers casting ballots.
At Delta, the unions asked the National Mediation Board to find that it and Northwest are operating as a single carrier. Delta bought Northwest in late 2008 and the Federal Aviation Administration granted them a single operating certificate on Dec. 31. The request to the mediation board is a first step toward a worker vote on whether flight attendants and certain ground workers will stay unionized, as they were at Northwest, or be nonunion, as they were at Delta.
The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers represents baggage handlers and customer-service workers who came from Northwest. It now has two weeks to show that enough workers want a vote. It needs election request cards from 35 percent of workers in each group, including both current union members from Northwest and their nonunion co-workers from Delta. Delta has said it has roughly 30,000 workers in that group, including roughly 10,000 who came from Northwest.
“The IAM campaign at Delta is about giving workers a voice, securing pension benefits and making sure Delta’s merger with Northwest does not strip workers of their right to an independent voice at work,” said Stephen Gordon, president of the IAM unit that covers Northwest workers.
Delta has roughly 20,500 flight attendants, including 14,000 nonunion workers and another 6,500 Association of Flight Attendants-CWA members who came from Northwest. Two years ago, 5,375 nonunion Delta flight attendants voted in favor of joining the AFA. That wasn’t enough to win the election, but the outcome could be different now that Northwest flight attendants would be voting, too.
One headwind for the AFA has been a pay scale that is slightly below what the nonunion Delta flight attendants make. Union officials have said the gap closes if you count fringe benefits and better work rules.
Delta fought the AFA’s earlier effort to unionize its flight attendants, and it had supported a court challenge to the new rule brought by the Air Transport Association. A judge rejected that challenge on Friday.
“Our employees have been waiting for the opportunity to make a decision about whether or not to have union representation for more than 20 months, since our merger took place. We’re pleased that time is finally here,” Delta spokeswoman Gina Laughlin said.
The Transport Workers Union has been trying to organize flight attendants at JetBlue Airways Corp. and Virgin America. TWU spokesman Jamie Horwitz said the union expects to seek an election at Virgin America this summer, but the drive at JetBlue is not as far along.
Stifel Nicolaus analyst Hunter Keay wrote in a note on Tuesday that successful union drives at Delta could actually save it money in the short run, because pay raises it is planning could be delayed while a new contract is negotiated.
Delta shares fell 13 cents to $11.62 in afternoon trading. JetBlue shares were down 7 cents to $5.43.