Delta Flight Attendants May Unionize Even Though Unionized Crew Are Deeply Unhappy Elsewhere

Airlines are one of the most heavily unionized industries in the country. That works out well for customers and investors at Southwest, but less well at other airlines. Delta, the other historically strong performer, is mostly non-union. Their largest unionized work group is their pilots. Delta’s dispatchers are also unionized.

The biggest flight attendants union is working hard to change that.

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.

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.

Here’s Delta’s website arguing against a union.

It seems like the easiest thing for Delta flight attendants to do is look around at how AFA-CWA represented flight attendants are doing at other airlines. AFA-CWA flight attendants at United Airlines are deeply unhappy, based on their own public scoring system. The union says their flight attendants are net negative 95% promoters of the airline as of August 2, 2022.

  • 91% of AFA-CWA union members at United feel unvalued by their company
  • 99% feel their issues are unresolved
  • 96% find United management unresponsive during irregular operations

That’s the AFA-CWA track record at the largest airline where they represent flight attendants, which is similar in size to Delta – so Delta flight attendants should be skeptical of promises that the same union is making about how their lives will be better paying a portion of their salary for AFA-CWA representation.

Meanwhile Delta has even started paying flight attendants for time spent boarding, something no union-represented flight attendants at any other airline receive.

  • Unions complain that Delta is only doing this to stave off unionization efforts, but if that’s true doesn’t that benefit Delta flight attendants?

  • They’re better off with unionization efforts at Delta that don’t succeed – unions as a stalking horse, not a reality. It’s the best of both worlds, pressure on management that leads to better pay, but without the bureaucracy of the union!

AFA-CWA has been trying to organize Delta fight attendants for years. In Sara Nelson’s messaging to union members, she concedes that union drives alone have gotten flight attendants much of the value of a union, with Delta offering more overtime pay and bonuses (and this was before Delta added on boarding pay). Her pitch, though, is that Delta might reduce pay without a union contract. If that ever happened of course flight attendants would quickly unionize. Delta would have a hard time filling positions. They wouldn’t be able to operate their schedule or make as much money. This is clearly a silly argument.

The truth is that unionized flight attendants at other airlines haven’t gotten paid for boarding time because unions haven’t prioritized it. And unions haven’t prioritized it because it disproportionately benefits junior crew at the expense of senior credit. Unions benefit senior employees at the expense of more junior ones.

  • Those working international long haul trips have more flight hours – unpaid boarding time per hour of paid flying time is much lower than for flight attendants working domestic trips. So senior employees who get to work those flights want higher pay for flight hours, not pay spread out to include boarding time.

  • Consider a two hour (paid) flight with 35 minutes of (unpaid) boarding versus a 10 hour (paid) flight with 50 minutes of (unpaid) boarding. Now multiple the unpaid boarding piece across several domestic segments a day for what are usually more junior crew working these trips.

Most Delta flight attendants benefit from the current arrangement, but the most senior crew might benefit from a union. The union drive doesn’t tell cabin crew that a majority of members might lose out even if a union contract costs the airline more – even leaving aside the out of pocket cost to pay for the union itself. But AFA-CWA head Sara Nelson, who nearly sought the top labor job in America running for President of the AFL-CIO, would improve her standing with a win at Delta.

Flight attendant unionization drives failed at Delta in 2002, 2008, and 2010. However a majority of flight attendants have been hired at Delta since the last union vote. The people who voted against it before aren’t necessary the same ones who would be considering it now. On the other hand, it’s not clear that younger flight crew should be pro-union.

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, 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. The younger generation has been trained by short form social media to think in binary snap judgments with no nuance.

    Unions? Good
    Russia? Bad
    Trump? Bad
    AOC? Good
    Plastic? Bad
    Vegan? Good
    Private equity? Bad
    Bike lanes? Good
    Cars? Bad
    Blacks? Good
    Whites? Bad
    Drugs? Good
    Guns? Bad
    Abortion? Good
    Religion? Bad
    Science? Good
    Chinese medicine? Bad

  2. Career Delta flight attendants have voted in more union elections than just about any other workgroup in America and they have consistently chosen not to be represented by unions.
    Of course, Delta’s massive flight attendant, maintenance and ground staff represent huge opportunities for unions so they will keep trying – and unionized airline workers subsidize those attempts.

    Delta doesn’t get everything right but they have a tried and tested strategy of paying their employees as much or more than other unionized employees – and that can be tricky given how QOL issues are valued – and the ball is in Delta’s court, not labor’s.

    It’s also worth noting that ALL labor groups want quick pay raises to offset massive inflation but throwing a union election into the mix will most definitely result in years of dragged out negotiations for a new contract that still doesn’t deal w/ inflation. JBLU’s flight attendants, the most significant airline unionization in the past 4 years, are the perfect example of how that has worked out in real life.

  3. DELTA is vaporware in a lot of its marketing but one place where there is an unquestionable DELTA Difference is the non-union flight attendant ranks. The constructive, flexible relationship with management without the holdbacks of overly prescriptive rules shows in their attitude toward flyers.

    I really hope those hired the last 10 years understand the core of the DELTA Difference that the longtime DELTA FAs saw back in 2010 – when they outnumbered the unionized Northwest-KLM crews.

  4. Unions are really good for the organizers and leaders of said unions. They get paid very well. Disappointment relative to union fees for everyone else.

  5. Unions are a bane on society and considering how they’re protected under labor laws, are a violation of individual rights. In a free society, only those that provided real value to the employees and the employer would exist.

  6. The first paragraph tells all you need to know about this topic.

    “Airlines are one of the most heavily unionized industries in the country. That works out well for customers and investors at Southwest, but less well at other airlines.”

    Bad customer service, low productivity, and lack of employee engagement are caused by management’s reaction to unionization not the fact of unionization itself.

    People forget, or never took the time to understand, how companies treated their employees before unions were around. The irrational fear of unions is a product of decades and decades of right-wing brainwashing. The extreme right prefers that rank-and-file workers have no say in their pay, benefits and working conditions and should be subject to the whims of their bosses with no meaningful recourse.

  7. @john: Your comments make me think you’ve never run a company. I’ve been down the union attempt before and it is so one sided. Federal government + unions against people who have businesses and everything on the line. We beat the union with one simple trick. The payday before the union vote the following Tuesday, we simply passed out two checks. One for their union dues + membership fee for joining and the balance in a regular check. The union was holding a rally the next Monday before the vote Tuesday and hardily anyone showed. Never heard from the union again. Unions are a thing of the past like the 1930s. No company can survive without treating their employees fairly.

  8. A whole lot of Fa’s aren’t happy with the master committee or Sarah Nelson. They’ve regulated a lot with the master committee to where they are basically on a gold paved road they cannot be voted off of. Not a single piss ant regular union due payer voted for Sarah. Because we can’t. They vote for each other. They are the micro version of career politicians that love good PR and stave off bad ones with deflective emotions.

    Yeah, your ass is saved from getting fired for something stupid. But if you’re known to be a nay saying critical thinker that doesn’t fall in line with the heavily left leaning union? Well.. tie your shoe wrong and get one bad customer feedback and you’re gone.

    The union prioritizes seniority. Anyone less than a line holder is a crutch to them. They don’t care about junior folks nearly as much as your top dollar dinosaur who cannot lift their own bag in the overhead.

    FAA absolutely needs to change annual qualifications to include fitness. A lot of senior folks on those top dollar cushion international flights will definitely be incapacitated if that plane goes down. Ever hear about how clear air turbulence puts them out for half a year? Top pay seniors were also keeping a company “afloat” while same company was cost cutting everywhere. Two junior FAs can cover one senior in pay scale. And should have been flying in the pandemic.

  9. People need to understand it’s not what the FA’s want. The union and their allies will tell you what you are going to have. These leftist hacks don’t care what you think no matter how many times they vote it down. It’s a cancer.

  10. @Harry, Thanks for considering my comment. My background would surprise you. I’ve negotiated numerous collective bargaining agreements on behalf of employers and run many successful campaigns against union organizing drives. I never lost a campaign that the employer contested. Winning these elections is not that hard for employers when they do it right like Delta does. A campaign is most easily won by actions the employer takes before a card drive starts.

    If unions didn’t exist, employees would be paid less, have fewer benefits and work under more onerous and less safe conditions. Anyone who thinks otherwise is naïve.

    Maximizing profits is the holy grail. Unions are perceived as standing in the way of that and management’s desire to have unfettered rights in running their businesses like a lord of the manor. Unions are therefore vilified. Some of the vilification is justified, but let’s not pretend that employers and supervisors are all saints when it comes to dealing fairly with employees collectively and individually. Congress has made unions almost irrelevant by mandating workplace protections and benefits that unions would never be able to get in a collective bargaining agreement.

  11. Gary– Did you just publish this nonsense from Delta’s P.R. Dept. verbatim or did you negotiate lots of free Miles and other benes before you published this tripe ?? Here’s the reality. America’s Middle Class was built and has been maintained because of Unions and Union Wages.. Unions continue to provide workers with health care. pension benefits, protection from discrimination, and lots of other workplace benefits. Delta’s culture has always been “southern “ya’ all”..which is traditionally anti-union. And they have managed to fight off organizing attempts with lies, false fear-mongering, and worker bribes. . Ask F-A’s at most non-union airlines about their pay, working conditions, etc. Ask ’em about what happens when they report safety issues, unreasonable overtime, violations of Federal Law. What happens?/ In a non-Union shop, they get canned. And the bad working conditions continue. No, Union representation is not perfect. But much of that occurs because the shop members are not active enough. A union is only as strong as its members which is why the Pilots” Unions continue to prevail in fight with Companies. I have to laugh at all the anti-Union crap comments. No doubt all planted by Airline P.R flacks… like your basic article. Union representation has protected workers for 2 Centuries. Buying the Company “crap” gets you nothing. And we must remember, Right Wingers hate Unions ’cause they hate the workers.

  12. One side of the equation that’s not discussed is the airline. Whether or not employees join a union, Delta has the right not to sign any contract with them that includes any requirement Delta not hire non union personnel. It’s these contract provisions that screwed car manufacturers and airlines because they are not able to hire non union people. Just imagine how well the airlines could have done for themselves by hiring unemployed flight attendants for market wages after Covid. There are a lot of people who would choose not to be part of the union on principal. I hope Delta management is smart. I doubt it.

  13. A message to all Delta FA’s,
    Carefully evaluate all areas of unionization. Weigh the pro’s and con’s and be careful for what you wish for. These times in the industry are not the 70’s or even the 90’s.
    I have no dog in this fight. I have worked 55 years in the industry as a union airline mechanic employee and as a flight crew union employee (flight engineer) and as a non union employee and both have their good points and bad.

  14. One thing you got right Gary, just the threat of a unionizing will cause companies to give more. It worked at my company. Just a shame that organizing in the transportation industry is so difficult that many of those companies figure they don’t have to worry about it. But I think the tide has turned. Most young people are tired of management talk and want substance instead.

  15. Jackson and Herb,
    Delta doesn’t make a big deal about being union or non-union. It simply pays its non-contract employees what is necessary to keep them paid as well or better than than their unionized counterparts and let their unionized employees – mostly pilots – figure out how to get to that same position – which they frequency achieve – with a union.

    Delta, like Southwest, recognizes that keeping employees engaged is worth it in terms of service levels compared to peers.

    Once again, United flight attendants just roasted management – and they aren’t going to get a pay raise anytime soon.

  16. Gary, I have to admit that I’m perplexed. You say that union flight attendants feel that they are generally treated shabbily by their employing airline, illustrating your premise that overall the unions are not functioning in doing their jobs of providing fair wages, benefits, and job stability. This amounts to unions = bad. The problem is, if the union was disbanded then the people would be treated even worse. Are you proposing that FA’s throw themselves at the tender mercies of the major airlines without any organization to represent them? If not, what exactly would you suggest as a course of action for unionized FA’s?

  17. AFA and it’s wannabe peeps are false in all aspects. They are stuck in the 1920s and only take care of their few friends.

    These AFA wannabes colleagues have nothing to offer and most if not all have never been under the AFA false actions. Sara is fake is full of herself. To carry such a name as the most powerful FA says she is fake and full of selfish. The most powerful FA is the entire FA family, not her.

    Let me remind everyone that Dara said during the pandemic that airlines should cease flying! Really, as well let me tell you all: UA furlough all of the junior FA “96 and onward and what did AFA do, nothing!

    They still wanted their dues and what I hear they still collected them even after the Furlough FA returned. AFA is fake and so is their false stories of Delta.

    We are doing way better, not perfect but better then AFA unionized airlines.

  18. You realize other airlines have unions and do like them, right? Did Delta pay you to write this or something. Boarding pay a. isn’t even our hourly rate b. doesn’t make up for getting flown into our off days with no accountability for it on Deltas end. Boarding pay doesn’t mean much when we are kept until the very last minute so they can use us for our 15 hour maximum day. We have no contract, so no real rules. They can use and abuse us with literally nothing except the FAA holding them accountable.

  19. Whoever said “Delta doesn’t make a big deal about being union or non union”. You clearly do not work for the company

  20. Incorrect and misleading article. We , Delta Flight Attendants, don’t want and don’t need an unión. We have an open door policy with management and we have the ability of solving all our issue without paying for a third party to get involved.

  21. @Tay boarding pay at half rate is 100% more than any airline being represented by AFA. How can you bash the boarding pay when delta literally is The only airline that has EVER had it? Yet you expect the grass to be so much greener on the other side. Also about working on your day off….if you want to be guaranteed to be off on Sunday then go work at a bank. Most of us would be able to have our days off if our own would show up to work. You got people telling new hires to hurry up and get FMLA….just to get out of working. But sure let’s vote in AFA so those not pulling their own weight never get fired and we will just let delta figure it out because we at least have a contract now to not have to work on our day off ever again!

  22. Gary is definitely getting some points and upgrades for this PR puff piece.
    What right wing anti unionists never seem to answer is, why would any employee show up to work without a contact if the CEO of the company won’t?
    Ed Bastian isn’t setting foot in the GO in Atlanta without a rock solid contact and neither should the rank and file employees.
    It’s great that they got pay raises and profit sharing.
    However, those are not guaranteed.
    Gary also failed to give context about boarding pay. Delta originally wanted to extend boarding time WITHOUT PAY.
    That was something the FAs were not happy about, and there was already a union campaign underway. Boarding pay is nice, but it is also in the environment of pressure that once that goes away, so does the pay… They have changed much about our jobs over the years without a vote.
    While a union isn’t perfect, I agree they favor the senior flight attendant maybe a bit too much,
    a contract can protect us from arbitrary changes in pay and work rules.
    Thinking the company is going to always do the right thing is simply jejune.

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