As Biden Joins Picket Line, Does Historic UAW Strike Help Flight Attendants Organize At Delta?
Is the strengthening labor movement, now embodied in a historic strike by the United Auto Workers, helping the union that has been trying for years to organize Delta Air Lines DAL +0.8% flight attendants?
“All of the union activity is helping,” Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, said Tuesday in an interview. “The public support for unions and auto workers and their strike is helpful. People see a real vision of what can be.”
Ten days ago, UAW President Shawn Fain wore a pin that said “Delta AFA Supporter” at a Detroit rally. Also, the strategic strike campaign adopted by the UAW resembles a strike tactic, known as Chaos, that was devised by AFA during a strike at Alaska Airlines ALK +1.2% in 1993. Last week, the similarity was the subject of a Wall Street Journal story.
Fain was given the pin by AFA Vice President Keturah Johnson, who joined him at the rally. “He wore it at the rally and kept wearing it,” said Nelson. She does not take credit for the UAW strategy. However, she said she has advocated for its use by other unions for years. AFA has trademarked the term CHAOS, which stands for “creating havoc around our system.” It enables a union to strike only at select locations while most members continue to work and get paid.
“Chaos has been talked about for a long time, in spaces where Shawn and I have both been,” Nelson said. “It’s brilliant, of course. It tears up the old playbook. It keeps the company off balance and allows the union to control the terms.” In particular, she said, the strategy vastly reduces speculation concerning how long a union can hold out as its strike fund is gradually depleted.
“UAW is running a really smart contract campaign that people all across America can identify with,” Nelson said. Walter Reuther, UAW president from 1946 to 1970 “said he would set the standard for the American worker and he did that,” she said. “Shawn Fain is reflecting the union’s roots.”
Today the union movement reaches an apex, with President Joe Biden scheduled to join a UAW picket line, the first time that a sitting president will be on a picket line. Also, two days ago Hollywood screenwriters reached a tentative deal with the major entertainment studios on Sunday night. Nelson was on the picket line with the screenwriters.
As labor gains visibility and support, Nelson has consistently been on the front lines — joining picket lines, attending rallies, and offering her support in frequent TV interviews. She said a turning point came in July, when International Brotherhood of Teamsters workers at UPS, led by President Sean O’Brien, secured a good contract.
“UPS was all about having a credible strike threat,” she said. It’s uncertain “whether any of us would enjoy the support we do right now if not for that incredibly smart Teamster campaign. They wanted to get a deal and they did, and they got rid of parttime work, which people thought was impossible to change. UPS had two years of listening to Sean O’Brien and seeing the tsunami coming. Apparently the Big Three didn’t see it as clearly,” she said, referring to Ford, GM, and Amsterdam-based Stellantis, owner of Chrysler. (Delta operates three daily non-stops between Detroit and Amsterdam.)
So far, major campaigns at both Amazon AMZN 0.0% and Delta have not had success. In April, Teamsters organized 84 drivers and dispatchers at a Palmdale, Ca.- based delivery firm that contracted with Amazon. Amazon has declined to negotiate. Also, at the Staten Island warehouse where an in-house union successfully organized about 8,000 workers in April 2022, progress on a contract has stalled. Amazon won’t recognize the union; workers don’t agree on how to respond and no other Amazon warehouses have been organized.
As for the Delta campaign, AFA has been seeking signatures on cards calling for an election. Nelson declined to say when an election might be held.
Delta said Tuesday that “AFA has been trying to organize Delta flight attendants since 2019 and has continued to fail to garner enough interest from Delta flight attendants to file for an election. We believe our direct relationship with employees is stronger, faster and more effective in driving improvements, which is why Delta employees have repeatedly rejected union representation over the past 20 years and continue to reject AFA’s efforts.
“Delta supports our employees’ right to choose whether or not a union is right for them,” the carrier said in a prepared statement. However, “Delta flight attendants have the highest hourly flight pay, the best profit-sharing program in the industry, and are the only ones to receive additional pay for the boarding process. AFA has not negotiated such a package for the flight attendants it represents.”
Detroit of course is a Delta hub. In the city’s flight attendant base, support for the organizing campaign is strong, said Nelson, noting “Detroit is a union city.”
As for traffic, during an investor conference last week, Delta President Glen Hauenstein said the carrier is “seeing a really nice uptick as we head into the fall,” But it also sees a “counterbalance” in traffic in Los Angeles, where “the writers and the actors being on strike is not a great thing for that sector.” Additionally, he said, “We're also, of course, watching the automotive industry as we head into potential strikes there.”