CEOs of American and United are pumping their fists in the air with news that the Association of Flight-Attendants-CWA has launched an effort to unionize Delta flight attendants. Finally, they’re thinking, their more profitable competitor may be saddled with the same onerous work rules that United and American face – and perhaps the better service flight attendants provide will go away in the long run, too.
The union says that “thousands of flight attendants at Delta Airlines have asked AFA to join them in efforts to become full members” of the union. There is no way that this is true. After all the union working to organize Delta flight attendants for the last decade has been the International Association of Machinists.
When you include profit sharing – Delta has higher profits, a more generous percentage of profits dedicated to bonuses than peers, and fewer employees to distribute those profits across – flight attendants are very well paid. Profit sharing at Delta has totaled over a billion dollars for years.
What’s more the airline just gave out a 4% raise to flight attendants, no bargaining required.
Delta has three advantages over U.S. competitors:
- Highly effective TechOps that allows them to operate more reliably than peers (Delta also monetizes this capability, which allows them to pay higher wages for greater productivity).
- Friendlier crew – on average – staff who are expected to deliver better service, with underperformers culled from their ranks. Nothing is more frustrating to employees than shirkers.
- Fiercely competitive management, willing to go to any length necessary to beat competitors. They play hardball with competitors, suppliers, and customers. They’re willing to use the government to do it.
Non-union mechanics works well for the mechanics and the airline. They have higher productivity which supports better pay. Non-union flight attendants works well for the flight attendants and the airline. Better service helps Delta generate higher net promoter scores and eaern a revenue premium, which generates profits that means better pay through profit sharing.
This is not an anti-union position. If I were working as flight crew at American or United I’d absolutely want a union. It’s just that at Delta the current arrangement works well across the board. I wouldn’t want to undercut the arrangement that supports better jobs than at those two other major carriers.
The AFA is correct that a union would mean ‘greater job protections.’ That’s another way of saying average performers will subsidize poor performers, and allow a culture where flight attendants who do an outstanding job will have to wkrk alongside those who do the bare minimum (if that).
Flight attendant unionization drives failed at Delta in 2002, 2008, and 2010. However according to the AFA “over 40 percent of the seniority list has been hired at Delta since the last union vote nine years ago,” so 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 are more likely to be pro-union.
Delta flight attendants can choose a union, with the costs and job protections that provides. However they can expect profit sharing to fall, the raises they’re getting without negotiation to go away. They won’t keep these things because the higher cost of unionization will trade off with wages (the value of the wage can’t exceed the value of marginal product) and because Delta will have to signal to mechanics that unionization doesn’t deliver benefits.