6 Reasons Delta Flight Attendants Should Reject A Union

The Association of Flight Attendants – Communications Workers of America (AFA-CWA) is trying to organize flight attendants at Delta. They are promising more money, less work and a pony. It costs them nothing to make promises, which are almost certainly not true. In reality, Delta’s cabin crew will pay for union representation, they won’t make as much money as they will under Delta’s unique model in the industry, and their work lives will be worse.

Every Delta flight attendant should ask, are cabin crew represented by AFA-CWA actually happier and better off at the myriad of airlines where the union represents them now – like United Airlines, Spirit, Frontier, and Mesa?

There are 6 basic reasons that flight attendants at Delta, following their self-interest, should reject unionization efforts by AFA-CWA:

  1. Unions are better as a threat than reality. Delta will pay to keep flight attendants happy enough not to vote for a union. But once they pull the trigger on the union that leverage is gone. And that is the end of unilateral pay increases, bonuses and other improvements.

  2. Flight attendants represented by AFA-CWA are deeply unhappy. AFA-CWA has a new scoring system at United which reports on flight attendant unhappiness at United. 91% of AFA-CWA union members at United feel unvalued by their company and 99% feel their issues are unresolved. Delta crew should ask if they want the experience of United crew that have been represented by AFA-CWA for years.

  3. Delta flight attendants don’t have to take on more work and suffer colleagues who shirk their duties now. The union plays on fear that anyone could be fired while protecting crew who don’t do their jobs and create hassle for flight attendants forced to pick up the slack.

  4. Adopting a union benefits senior crew at the expense of junior crew. The union pretends they extract from management but the airline pays market rate and well above in normal high profit times. Crew at other airlines are jealous of the big bonuses Delta flight attendants have received and now about boarding pay. There isn’t more for unions to take. On the other hand they do redistribute to older employees. Junior crew benefit more from boarding pay than senior crew, and that’s why flight attendants unions never really prioritized it while Delta provided it.

  5. The Delta environment, work rules and culture have set the airline apart from peers in the past. Change it and they become less profitable which means less money to distribute to crew.

  6. Delta crew won’t get more money. They may get a worse work experience. And they will lose money out of their pocket for the privilege.

AFA-CWA organizing is all about adding members, not making flight attendants better off. That’s why union head Sara Nelson favored Frontier taking over Spirit Airlines, rather than JetBlue – the former would have meant AFA-CWA representation, while JetBlue has a different union. A JetBlue deal means more money for many flight attendants but that wasn’t AFA-CWA’s goal!

AFA-CWA didn’t even manage to protect jobs. Its members were furloughed during the pandemic at United. Delta didn’t do furloughs.

Crew at Delta aren’t 19th century factory workers. Stories about the role of unions in the past don’t speak to whether there is something to add today. Sticking with an outmoded factory model has made competitors like United and American places where cabin crew are frequently unhappy to work.

Southwest is an outlier. They are union and people are still happy working there. They have a unique history and backstory as underdog they have manages to partially hold together. Replicating that is a long shot – but if it could happen at Delta then best case is things aren’t worse (but flight attendants are out of pocket to pay for union leadership and office overhead) – there is simply no upside for the majority of crew.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. You really should not be commenting on this issue.
    I was a flight attendant for 23 years & you don’t see a thing behind the curtain !

  2. @Aida

    Rather than telling people to shut up, would you consider providing the insights you gained from 23 years of experience?

  3. You all miss the point of the article. It is intended to spark controversy. The readership is filled with those of strong political beliefs who will be compelled to comment. This will drive up the number of clicks on the web site, which in turn drives advertising revenue.

  4. I have a friend who is newbie flight attendant at Delta and she is being worked to death for almost no money. She started flying in May and she is sometimes the most senior member of her cabin crew. Insane. @Aida is right. Unless you are working this job I don’t think you can truly understand how messed up it is.

  5. The wisdom of my first B-School management prof always rings in my head “the management of any company who gets a union voted in – deserves it!”.

    If the flight attendants where happy and satisfied, Delta management would not have to worry about it. Delta (along with everyone else) made poor decisions on staffing during the pandemic, and now they are paying for it. I know of two ATL area Delta FA’s who retired early during the pandemic that were planning on working at least 4-7 more years. Delta did nothing to try to retain them, and it fact seemed pretty happy to have these higher scale 30+ year veterans off the payroll.

    Airline management seemed to think that the pandemic was going to be just like the other slowdowns. They could just snap their fingers and scale staffing back up on a dime. Didn’t work out that way, there are 3M more job openings out there than Feb 2020. They have to now compete against other jobs that are offering good flexibility and better pay. Also take into account that a bunch of the customer base are entitled yahoos that behave badly, and don’t respect authority.

    No empathy for Delta management at all….

  6. My wife is a delta FA for 26 years and I can tell you Gary is spot on with this. The unions are like government bureaucracies now – they exist to exist and make everything worse. When a lazy millennial won’t do thier job, there are repercussions so that it doesn’t fester. With a union this dynamic will not be allowed and festering is exactly what will happen. Unfortunately delta cut a lot of crew loose during Covid and hired a ton of millennials who just don’t get the whole “work” thing and may well tip the vote this time around.

  7. babs,
    Delta’s flight attendant pay scales are published and known. Your friend is getting paid what she agreed to and it is considerably more than “almost no money” and she is also not near death.

    Ditch the hyperbole and admit that Delta has figured out how to keep the advantages of being non-union while paying high salaries (like Southwest does).

    You forgot to mention, Gary, that Delta pilots get upset thinking they are negotiating for the rest of the company but Delta is pretty careful not to give its pilots more than it is willing to give the other employee groups. Whether DL pilots are held back (probably not really since they are also well compensated) or other DL employee groups benefit from DL pilots is one of perspective but the chances are quite high that a relatively few DL employees (not a majority) will choose to change their non-union status.

    And unionization does cost the employee real cash. It is far from clear that there is any net benefit across the workforce.
    As with all democracies, people vote with their pocketbooks

  8. @ Gary, Alda is spot on and you are clueless on this issue! I retired in 2020 with 22 years at Delta. While DL is a great company to work for there are more than six reasons to have a union with “Scope” being the main one. It’s not always about money – rather rules, regulations and protections. When DL filed for bankruptcy, the flight attendants were first on the chopping block to get a pay cut. They kept the junior flight attendants (language of destination speakers) and told senior flight attendants (non language of destination speakers) they could be furloughed if they didn’t take a leave that was offered. Clearly seniority wasn’t “everything”. No negotiation – Ever! They just take and make changes as the company needs change on a dime. DL. You say the flight attendants are unhappy with unionized airlines. That may be true. However, what makes you think that DL flight attendants would be unhappy if they voted in a union? It makes no sense. It’s time DL flight attendants vote in a union (if that’s what they want) and people that have no working knowledge in the industry should stay quiet on the subject (you.) I’ve said it before, if unionization is ok for Pilots, Police Officers, Firefighters and Sports Teams, it should be ok for the awesome DL Flight Attendants

  9. Yup, love the union articles. Tends to bring out lots of the pro- union at any cost types. Not even sure if they’re actually airline employees commenting (not like the comment section checks ID and credentials). And the “I hate all union types”. Who’ve probably never needed one.

    Personally, I have to agree that the unions at airlines can cause as many problems as they “solve”. Pretty interesting that most consumers dislike airline unions, as all we see are a bunch of “protections” for workers that seem to protect the worst employees at the cost of those that are high performers. Sorry if that makes you angry, but that’s the consumer experience.
    Unions also tend to self- preserve the leadership more than the members, and certainly more than the company itself when a crisis happens or needs to turn on a dime. Unions didn’t exactly help AA make good business decisions and get set up for future success.

    As to those that want to say “you don’t understand, Gary- I work at Delta and it stinks”- That’s actually not his point. Sorry you have complaints about your job; we all do. The point is the union won’t necessarily make it better. It seems like the unionized flight attendant groups are just as (or even more) unhappy the the ununionized shops. The grass isn’t necessarily greener on this one, guys.

  10. TG,
    Delta and all the major airlines had fairly public chapter 11 cases and Delta flight attendants were not the first to take a hit; every employee group took a hit.
    And if you don’t think that there are United flight attendants that still sting from having their pension terminated while Delta’s (and Northwest and American) was frozen, you are only selectively looking at the facts. Bankruptcy reorganization is not kind but Delta did successfully reorganize and was the most profitable global airline for a decade and is likely on track to do the same – returning one of the richest profit sharing programs to its employees – union and non-union. You are kidding yourself if you think anything that is above average will be retained without giving something else up – such as profit sharing.
    And let’s not forget how long it took B6 flight attendants to get their first contract – which was hardly earth shatteringly good. There is a long lag in getting a first contract and it costs employees far more than they will likely make up for in a career. Ethereal promises of “better” come crashing down AFTER the vote has been decided.

    no one had a clue how long the pandemic would last. no sane company or even the government retained workers that it could not use. People decided they weren’t going to stick around with an obligation to return. Add in the trillions of dollars that were thrown to the public and plenty of people left the workforce in ALL industries. Workforce participation is lower than it has been in a long time. Many Americans simply do not want to work.

    Delta’s labor costs will certainly go down as it brings in lower cost workers but there are many jobs in the airline industry that simply do not need 20 years or more of experience to do. Many airline employees are working for a period of life and then moving on; travel benefits at US airlines are the best in the world and younger people that want to experience the world are willing to work for those benefits. More and more of the big 3’s employees are attracted to those airlines’ global networks.

    Service is going to suffer for all companies going forward and not just in the US. Wait til Asia starts reopening in earnest and see how service has changed at Asian airlines. They never retained employees near as long and will be starting over with a much higher percentage of new employees. Many European companies have worse staffing issues than US companies.

    People that are not going to stick around for a career – a higher percentage of employees at any company – are simply not willing to fight for a union, esp. if the time it takes to get a first contract can cost them thousands of dollars in raises now.

  11. When Delta Flight attendants applied for the job, they knew it was a non-union job, right? If they want to be a part of a union, wouldn’t it be easier if they just go work for United or AA or another airline that has a union?

  12. Gary..this is a well written article in which I will agree with all of your points. DL unionizing would only benefit the union and the super seniors…certainly doesn’t speak well for Delta’s future employees.

  13. Why does flight attendants unionizing at Delta matter to Gary Leff? You never fly Delta, right?

  14. @Tim Dunn –

    Last month workforce participation was only .6% lower than it was from the avg rate from 2012-2020. Which equates to maybe 950K in missing workers. Take into account that 1-2M people retired early, we are missing 300-600K working immigrants, and 300-600K incremental working age people either dead or disabled – is easy to see where the gaps are. In actuality, workforce participation was expected to be even lower due to Boomers retiring faster then Gen Z being able to replace them. It’s not that people don’t want to work, they just aren’t willing to work for sub-par wages/benefits/working conditions. Welcome to the brave new world where workers have pricing power. Also – ton’s of working people shored up their balance sheets during the pandemic and perhaps now don’t have to work as much. Bully for them.

    Unions will happen occasionally for industries with poor management, and with the pendulum shifting back a little towards labor it will happen more frequently. Again in my experience – any company who has a union, most likely has deserved it.

  15. I worked as both a flight attendant and a flight attendant manager for a unionized airline for many years. 90% of the union’s efforts were directed at ensuring the bottom 3% of performers never lost their job. Many of these flight attendants received horrendous feedback from their colleagues, and their prolonged tenure caused morale problems. Unions will insist management treat all flight attendants equally, and they will discourage special recognition of loyal employees. Conversely, they are obsessed about protecting senior flight attendant entitlements at the expense of junior flight attendants. There is a constant focus on encouraging service levels at the lowest possible denominator. Unions will also create an obsession around “protecting” contractually negotiated “rights”. In an extended delay situation,for example, a unionized crew will gleefully look at the exact minute they can “legally” leave an airplane and strand 300 or so passengers with no regard for the customers paying their salary.

  16. I work In a Government job and am approaching retirement age. After paying union dues voluntarily (in my state) I decided to revoke permission for doing so. I did this because I am sick and tired of my union dues going to support political candidates I never support or vote for. The amount of $ my union sends these candidates is off the charts. I have asked one time ever for assistance from the union regarding a grievance and there help was abysmal at best.

  17. Delta is very much a pep rally, fix-it-and-forget-it airline. If you become disabled, they set it up so you lose your job in the process. They routinely prune the trees, so you never know if layoffs are around the corner. It is best that the flight attendants organize for the benefit of not just themselves but for future flight attendants as well. Having representation means having a dialogue with management as opposed to taking orders and smiling. Management changes and the economy mean that the industry most frequently responds by shedding workers, so being able to negotiate layoffs or early retirements is a must. Future flight attendants also need to know what awaits them if they decide to fly, and that could be found inside a CBA. Yes, unions often seem ineffective, but they are there for a reason. To keep from being left high and dry when the music stops.

  18. Alex,
    your perception of reality not just at Delta but at other non-union companies is naive. It is precisely because Delta does document what they do and provide industry average support that Delta’s non-union employees have not voted to change anything.
    let’s be clear. Delta flight attendants who have been with the company for more than 20 years have voted in more union elections than just about any employees in the US workforce and more than many Americans have voted in presidential elections.

    With the NW merger, Delta employees – by vote – eliminated more union positions than any company has in the history of US labor while continuing to operate.

    Delta remains a target of unionization efforts precisely because Delta is largely non-union in an industry that is unionized and airline employees make above average than American labor as a whole. Unions keep trying to think a new batch of employees will change the desire of non-union status for most of DL’s employees but there really is no indication that anything has changed other than a new wave of sabre rattling from unions.

    btw, Delta pilots are not exactly enamored with their union right now which is very much a dynamic that Delta is happy to see.

  19. Tim, are you suggesting the pilots at Delta should drop DALPA? There seems to be a double standard whereby it’s ok for pilots to have a union but not other work groups. I seriously doubt any pilot would say they want a union. Without unions, airline workers would not be benefiting from many of the safety enhancements that have been implemented over the years. Unions are also credited with the 5-day work week, health insurance and 40-hour day. Many of the social benefits that Europeans benefit from are the work of strong unions influencing their governments. Saying flight attendants don’t deserve a union is saying they don’t deserve a voice, and every American worker does. But the Southern, boss-first ethos will always be there to keep workers from organizing on the plantation.

  20. delta just fired a fa bc she posted a not so flattering image of 45…talk about killing an ant with a sledge hammer…. better to have some sort of safety net (even if it has some holes), than no safety net at all !!!

  21. Alex,
    I am not saying that Delta pilots should drop a union but I am saying that they aren’t necessarily thrilled with the company’s leaders – and I am not so sure that Delta mgmt would just as soon not portray the frustration with the pilots as part of the process.
    We all know what unions have done in the past but employees today have to decide on what is happening now. What contributions to the workforce have unions vs. what Delta’s non-union employees have received in the past, say, 30 years?
    Let me remind you that Delta flight attendants are now beginning paid when aircraft are boarding, something no other large US airline is doing. Delta didn’t cut their FAs pay in order to add boarding pay and, in fact, DL FAs have received pay raises since their unionized peers have.

    As hard as you and others want to act like this latest union campaign is something special, it is the same failed union campaigns that Delta employees have witnessed time and time again.

  22. Of the six reasons Gary asserts for opposing a union, numbers 2, 3, 4 and 6 won’t convince anybody to vote No. I’ll admit, they sound like good talking points to some one with an anti-union perspective. However emphasizing those points can make management look sillier than employees may already think they are. Point No. 5 is the key to a company win but not because employees are threatened by claims about company profitability.

    As someone who has run eight or nine contested campaigns for management and never lost, here’s how I see it: a union campaign isn’t about the level of pay and benefits or the stuff mentioned in Gary’s reasons other than his point about culture and work environment in No. 5. A union campaign is about how much rank-and-file employees feel they are being listened to and if the work environment is respectful.

    Speeches and letters from the CEO won’t cut it. Employees don’t know the CEO. The key to winning a union election is the relationship employees have with lower-level management , i.e., first and second line supervisors. That’s who employees know and deal with daily. If that relationship is good, a union has a snowball’s chance in hell. If that relationship is bad, …

    You can’t just talk a good game, you have to back it up in reality. Alex said it in his comment: “Having representation means having a dialogue with management as opposed to taking orders and smiling.” If employees aren’t having meaningful dialogue with their supervisors, the company is in trouble. Discussion of the ways to fix that, if necessary, are beyond the scope of this comment but its not rocket science. It is definitely not just a matter of giving employees everything they ask for.

  23. There you go again with the negative waves Moriarty, always with the negative waves.
    – Oddball

    As I’ve said here before, the only reason for a “bad” union is “bad” management.

  24. Aahhh a mouthpiece for management. Substitute the word “contract’ for “Union”. The people who don’t want a group to have a union, tend to either already have a union and/or they have a contract for doing their work. Unions provide a contract for large groups of workers. That’s it. Quit trying to turn it into something else.

  25. I’m a Delta Flight Attendant for 25 yr and I don’t want a union. Many of my union friends don’t like their union and they are miserable. Look at Jet Blue, my friend just came over from Jet Blue to Delta and he told me that the flight attendants there don’t like AFA and are leaving. They have ruined that airline for the flight attendants. And We didn’t furloughed anyone during Covid but other union airlines did. Before you get fired with Delta, you have to go through a board of Delta Flight Attendants. It’s hard to get fired here unless you did a lot of stupid stuff. But then, if you don’t pay your union fees even when youre furloughed, out the door you go with the union!

  26. When delta filed bankruptcy the f/as we’re TOLD what their work rule, compensation and benefit diminishment was going to be. When NW filed for bankruptcy (same day same court house) it was the f/as that came up with what they would give up.

    At Delta bankruptcy they got NOTHING in return while at NW the union got f/as stock equity with a gtd return to pay date.

    At Delta you can be rescheduled to a layover without a hotel in advance and be stuck in the middle of the night on hold waiting to find out where you’re going to sleep. At NW you didn’t have to accept that type of rescheduling without a confirmed hotel.

    Yes airlines furloughed while delta “bought off” senior f/as. but the furloughs were recalled with full pay and benefits while delta scrambles to hire which allowed the union operations to restore more quickly .This was a deliberate move to lower average age and lower payroll.

    So SW is an anomaly? How about JetBlue, Hawaiian or Alaskan? As for UA “not being happy” according to their rating system they’re not happy with management decisions NOT their job.

    Anyone characterizing “happiness because of no union” is just pure selective conjecture .

    Perhaps this author is trying to earn favor in Deltas eyes.

  27. NAILED IT, Gary! Unionists are worse than politicians with their lies. Delta FAs have always been kept at or very near to top of the pay, bonus and work rules. And we’ve enjoyed an unparalleled, mutually respectful relationship with management. A union’s first tactic is to drive a hateful wedge between labor and management. After several mergers with union FAs, they always seem to dislike their company; whereas Delta FAs always seemed to LOVE working for Delta and their jobs. Delta has always had an unofficial policy: “happy FAs make for happy passengers”.

    As you mentioned, if/when this changes we can revaluate our need for a union. The threat of a union is better than the beast itself.

  28. Delta FAs are UNION FREE for a reason. They see how miserable all the union FAs are at all the other airlines. Let’s not forget the majority of unionized Northwest FAs voted for Union Free after the Delta merger.

  29. DL flight attendants benefit from other flight attendant groups’ union contacts. Would love to see someone argue that DL pilots should give up having a union for the same reasons. The most important thing is to have a legally enforceable contract that you negotiate with management. Otherwise, you’re exposed to a lot of risk:

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