Skift Take

Fourth time’s a charm? Sara Nelson is the latest union leader to attempt to organize flight attendants at Delta Air Lines, which has a mostly non-union workforce. If it’s going to ever happen, the pandemic will be the catalyst to give Nelson a victory.

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One of the least-unionized airlines has swatted away three prior attempts from labor unions trying to organize its flight attendants. 

But the pandemic is a different playing field, says the head of the largest cabin crew union in the U.S.  

“After the Northwest-Delta merger, management said, ‘Give us a year. Trust us. You’re going to like this better,’” Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO, said Wednesday at Skift Aviation Forum. “And, you know, people said, ‘Yeah, we gave you a year. It didn’t work, and now what you’re doing on the backside of Covid is you’re asking us to do more with less.’”

Delta is an evasive target for union leaders, as flight attendants have voted down prior attempts at organizing in 2002, 2008, and 2010. A 2015 vote was called off amid fraud charges with the ballots.

The 2010 vote occurred while Northwest and Delta flight attendants had yet to integrate with the merger, but there is growing optimism the now-combined labor pool would be more receptive to unionizing. Northwest was a more pro-union business than Delta. 

Less than 20 percent of Delta’s workforce was unionized heading into the pandemic, with pilots being the airline’s major organized labor group.

Nelson, who took part in the panel while attending a Delta organizing meeting, believes the way the airline handled itself — like CEO Ed Bastian’s defense of stock buybacks in lieu of using that money for an emergency fund — during the pandemic is likely to fuel more “yes” votes during any push to unionize. Labor union support is also growing nationally, particularly with younger workers.

The AFA website targeting Delta flight attendants to organize notes United, which is unionized, pays $100 million more each year than Delta for flight attendant costs like base pay, profit sharing, benefits, and working conditions.  

“The flight attendants see this. Other workers see this, and there’s a general trend in labor organizing,” Nelson said. “I do think this is the moment that this is going to get done. It’s very exciting.”

While she declined to give a specific timeline on when a vote might take place among Delta flight attendants, Nelson said an organizing campaign typically takes about a year. The AFA’s campaign aimed at Delta organizing began in late 2019, but the pandemic obviously deterred organizing efforts.

Delta leadership worked to reduce staff counts over the pandemic and cut costs. Notably, Bastian emphasized the process of getting more senior staffers to retire and take buyouts as one that helped cut costs on the benefits front and now have a younger team with “juniority benefits.” 

That doesn’t sit well with Nelson. 

“It’s pretty offensive, actually,” she said. “Flight attendants, we worked really hard to turn this job into a career … We benefit from that experience. I mean, you look at [“Miracle on the Hudson” US Airways flight] 1549, when [Captain] Sully [Sullenberger] managed to land on the Hudson, it was over 100 years of experience in the cabin that got all those passengers out safely. So, there’s a lot to be said for experience in this industry and talking about the benefits of seniority is like throwing people out the door.”

Delta has its own thoughts on this.

“Delta was the only major airline to not furlough flight attendants during pandemic, and our total flight attendant compensation leads all major U.S. carriers when compared apples-to-apples,” the airline said in a statement after Nelson spoke at Skift Aviation Forum. “As Delta leads the industry’s recovery, all our employees will benefit even more as we share the profits of our success. More than $6 billion in profit sharing was paid out during the five years leading up to the pandemic – something no other company has done.”

What’s Next

Nelson has become a labor superstar in recent years with regular media appearances and high-profile features written about her in publications like the New York Times. General industry sentiment is that she is unlikely to stop her ascent within the labor ranks, so speculation abounds about her next steps. 

Runs for Congress or even for the top job at AFL-CIO, the largest labor union association in the U.S. The AFA is part of an AFL-CIO affiliate. Nelson provided a little bit of clarity Wednesday on where she sees her career going next. 

“It’s also exciting that we’re talking about flight attendants having power when these are people who have traditionally been objectified and cast aside, and we’re changing that,” she said. “So, for that reason, I have to consider running for AFL-CIO president, and I’m making a very serious consideration. I haven’t made up my mind yet, but that is on the table.”

UPDATED: This story was updated to include comments from Delta Air Lines.

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Tags: association of flight attendants, coronavirus, coronavirus recovery, delta air lines, sara nelson, skift aviation forum 2021, skift live

Photo credit: Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO, wants to unionize Delta flight attendants. The company's workers voted against it three times before. AFGE / Wikimedia

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