What will it take to win the union at Delta?

April 2, 2018

A campaign by flight attendants and baggage handlers at Delta Air Lines to form a union with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) is gaining ground, with a rally planned for this Wednesday, April 4, in St. Paul, Minnesota. But Delta is ramping up their anti-union propaganda, too. Danny Katch asked a Delta worker to describe the grievances that are driving the campaign and how the organizing is going.

WHY DID you get involved in this campaign and why do you think Delta ramp workers need a union?

I'VE ALWAYS thought of myself as a progressive person, someone who believes in fairness, justice and equality. I also believe that over the last 40 years, the working class has gotten poorer, while CEOs like Delta's Ed Bastian have gotten richer.

Specifically, I got involved in this campaign because, as a Delta worker, I feel like I'm getting the short end of the stick. As a Ready Reserve who does equal work for unequal pay, I constantly feel like the company devalues what I'm doing to produce tremendous profits for them.

CAN YOU explain what the Ready Reserve program is?

OVER THE last 20 years, Delta has continually replaced full-time, benefitted positions with part-time, temporary, un-benefitted employees who they call Ready Reserves. You don't receive paid vacations, flexible holidays or yearly raises. We top out at $15 an hour while full time tops out at $30.

They've gone to a model where they're continually replacing full-time workers--one full-time worker with two Ready Reserves, and I'm tired of it.

Baggage handlers load a passenger jet at Delta Air Lines
Baggage handlers load a passenger jet at Delta Air Lines

WHAT ARE some of the other issues leading workers to want to form a union?

A FEELING of job insecurity is one. People feel like there's not going to be that full-time career around the corner. For instance, I was told in my interview that full-time would be possible after one or two years. Now Delta is telling us it's five years.

There are broken promises, like cutting our profit-sharing in half at a time when they are most profitable in their entire history. There are so many different reasons that people feel that unionizing is what's necessary.

Then there's safety--people are destroying their bodies doing this work. If you take on this job as a career you're more likely to walk away with several surgeries than no surgeries at all.

Let's just take a typical Delta flight, with an MD88 aircraft. There are maybe 100 bags that need to be loaded onto a plane. It used to be that you'd have three or four people responsible for moving those bags in order to get them into the cargo bins and the rest.

Nowadays, Delta sometimes puts one person in the bin responsible for moving all 100 bags in a matter of five to 10 minutes--and we're talking about bags that weigh 50 to 70 pounds apiece.

So people develop all types of back and shoulder injuries--and knee injuries since you're on your knees when you're in the bin.

WHAT ARE some of the ways that employees having more of a voice and rights on the job could address safety issues?

TO BECOME more profitable, management has forced fewer and fewer people to do more work in order to become more profitable and more efficient. A union would be one way to guarantee that we have more workers doing the things that are required of us in order to get flights out on time, in order to move and transport bags.

We could have a health and safety committee that essentially has the power to make sure that workers' best interests are being accounted for in the process of doing the work, so that we don't go home destroyed by the jobs we do.

HOW IS the campaign going so far?

IT'S GOING well. When I talk to my coworkers they're happy there's a campaign going on. They're willing to sign cards. They recognize their jobs are being de-skilled and devalued, and they're insecure in a lot of ways.

The main task is extending that awareness and making sure that everyone knows what's going on with the union drive.

HOW HAS the company been responding to this campaign?

DELTA RECENTLY did a mass e-mail that they sent to all of us with a bunch of anti-union propaganda. In the past, they've spent millions and millions of dollars hiring lawyers in order to convince my co-workers not to organize. And then they call people in for meetings with management, where they tell people that they can't talk about union organizing on the job.

We constantly have to push back against them in order to utilize our federally protected rights.

WHAT DO you think it's going to take to win?

IT'S GOING to take building organizing committees in all of our different stations. It's going to take organizing ourselves as if we're a union already, doing things like the profit-sharing petition we've circulated.

When Delta cut our profit-sharing, they decided to reinstate it two years later, because they "said it was a mistake." But they didn't give us retroactive pay for the two years that they cut profit-sharing--and those were the two years that Delta was most profitable.

So we made a petition to demand that we get retroactive pay for profit-sharing, which is just a way that we show what unions fight for, even though we're not unionized yet. We need to give our co-workers the practical experience of what it means to be in a union so that they understand why they need to vote yes.

Other than that, it's going to take winning public support. In a lot of ways, a passenger's conditions on a plane are an airline employee's working conditions. More baggage handlers to get bags on a plane means that fewer passengers are going to have their bags lost. More space on the plane for flight attendants means it's less cramped for passengers as well.

So there are definite reasons why the public should support us and why we need that support for our campaign for fairness, equality and justice on the job.

WHAT WOULD a successful campaign at Delta mean for the wider labor movement?

UNIONS HAVE been attacked and destroyed for the last 40 years, and the private sector in particular has taken enormous losses in terms of wages, benefits and working conditions.

A successful union drive of 40,000 Delta flight attendants and ramp workers could potentially be a catalyst for all types of workers who might be inspired to organize in their workplace to rebuild the labor movement and hopefully begin to beat back the employer offensive and build a society that's more equal and more democratic.

Further Reading

From the archives