How The Government Bailout Could Wind Up Unionizing Delta Air Lines

At least 27,000 Delta employees are taking unpaid leave. Ground employees are taking a 25% pay cut. However Delta’s pilots are saying no to reduced pay.

Delta’s pilots are unionized. Flight attendants and mechanics are not. While non-union employees at Delta have done well in recent good economic times there have been growing efforts to unionize, especially among flight attendants, and Delta’s efforts to push back have been tone deaf at times.

The airline can impose changes on work rules and pay on its non-union employee groups that it cannot on its pilots. They could engage in furloughs of pilots (although there are restrictions), and use that as a lever to extract concessions similar to what they’ve imposed on other work groups, but taking a government bailout is going to prevent them from doing so.

Taking CARES Act money places restrictions on Delta’s ability to furlough employees through September 30.

  • Accepting payroll grants requires the airline not to furlough workers
  • Accepting subsidized loans requires the airline not to furlough more than 10% of employees

Delta can’t take government money and furlough pilots. Without the ability to furlough pilots they can’t get pilots to agree to cuts. And pilots getting full pay while everyone else suffers is going to make it hard for Delta to make the case to other work groups to remain non-union.

The pilots union has, reportedly, been willing to negotiate – but not accept similar terms as other workers. And Delta can’t be seen to give pilots a better deal, even though pilots at American Airlines are getting a much better deal than other work groups at American Airlines because they’re pilots, which is to say they’re harder to replace when times turn back around and pilot job actions can cripple an airline.

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. Then go medieval on them Sep 1. No mercy. Drop a few hints that the whirlwind is coming.

    “Nice cushy overpaid union job you have there; be a shame if something happened to it less than five months from now.”

    Yet another in a long string of reasons why unions suck.

  2. You said pilots can be given a better deal, because they are pilots.
    And you say right before that pilots cannot be given a better deal than other employees. Well, guess what? I have an answer for you. The sentence right after.

    This whole essay is poorly written and the thought process not fluent.

  3. Gary, I wrote that comments a few days back to a story about how DL was treating their FA’s. I don’t think it would be a smart move by the FA at DL, but I could see it happening. Just the opposite could happen at AA, the union could get crushed there. Won’t that be an interesting thing to watch, DL goes union, AA dumps the union and watch the service levels evolve. Keeping an eye on this new reality series!

  4. The security of a labor agreement becomes obvious at Delta. Delta will need tactics to counter the disparity in treatment of FAs versus unionized employees. Delta’s pilots’ union cannot agree to cuts imposed on nonunion employees otherwise why have a union and a union contract.

    Furloughs of union or nonunion workers would have to comply with the notice provisions of federal and state WARN statutes. Covid-19 may provide an exception from WARN notice requirements.

    I think unions would choose the layoff procedure agreed to in the previously ratified labor agreement over negotiating terms mid contract that mirror terms being imposed on nonunion employees. A union would claim layoffs are the company’s fault.

    @ sunviking82, No way AA FAs become nonunion. With current management, that would be madness.

  5. I’m guessing Delta ramp employees need a union too. To just go in and impose a 25% cut in hours makes it hard to make a living. And there arne’t any comparable jobs around. Hopefully Delta employees wake up and see that they do need a union contract to protect them. Right now they are “At will” employees whose job and benefits can be cut any time Management wants to make a change.

  6. There certainly is a hierarchy whether people want to accept it or not. You have the pilots who are the most skilled trained (and before this mess, most in demand), then the mechanics, and at the bottom the FAs.

    FAs are easily the most replaceable job skill since it requires exceptionally little training and when they hire FAs there are usually many more applicants than available jobs. They really have little negotiating power.

    If you are an employee and have the upper hand, you might as well use it while you can because you know most employers will use it the minute they have the upper hand.

    And Gary needs to hire someone to proofread his postings, they have more obvious typos than anything I’ve read. Misspelled “aircraft” in one title, leaves letters off words, etc. I’d hate to see what he does in his other job.

  7. If American Airlines dumps the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA) union, and Delta becomes a union shop, would this make American Airlines the new Delta Airlines?

  8. Delta pilot group was the first work group to offer concessions. Some they took and others they decided not to. The pilot group is not working at full pay

  9. The ‘beauty’ of Union contracts is that they cut both ways. So Ed Bastian could decide when times improve to add extra $$ to profit sharing for the non-union workers – and that is most likely what he will do when things improve. As for the pilots, well you can’t adjust the profit sharing without re-opening the contract, so they would get nothing more then what’s in the contract. In a unionized environment you live and you die by the contract.

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