Delta workers accuse airlines of having a ‘culture of fear’ in trying to unionize

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Delta Air Lines employees are now organizing union action, citing difficult working conditions in the US airline industry in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and stagnant wages despite the airline making huge profits.

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The unions are in the process of collecting the majority of union cards to merit the union elections with the National Council of Mediation, announcing a joint collective effort a few weeks ago.

Flight attendants organize into the Association of Flight Stewards-CWA, ramp agents into the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM), and mechanics into Teamsters.

Delta Air Lines aggressively opposed unionization for years. The company has the lowest percentage of employees currently represented by a union among major US airlines, currently around 20% of the company’s more than 80,000 employees.

Kip Hedges, a former Delta Air Lines employee and current union organizer at IAM, explained that the previous pre-pandemic union organizing campaign was not successful in obtaining enough union cards for the election, but a new effort was gaining momentum.

Hedges cited the recent surge in union support across the US, grueling working conditions during the Covid-19 pandemic, and the impact of inflation on wage stagnation, while union pilots at Delta Air Lines recently won a contract that included a 34% wage increase over four years.

“The whole idea of ​​frontline workers and essential workers has seeped into the atmosphere, and I think it has an impact on what Delta employees think about,” Hedges said. “A huge problem for Delta employees is the lack of personnel on the ramp. We used to take breaks between flights, which allowed the body to recover a bit. The breaks are shorter, less frequent, and arbitrary discipline has an impact on that.”

He estimated that Delta Air Lines now has about 16,000 to 17,000 ramp agents and that the union organization is in high demand at major airports including Atlanta, New York, Detroit, Minneapolis and Seattle. Ramp agents perform aircraft handling duties, including loading and unloading aircraft and directing aircraft to and from gates.

Delta Air Lines surpassed pre-Covid-19 profits and revenues with record revenues in the third quarter of 2022. The company expects profits to nearly double in 2023.

A ramp agent at Delta Air Lines at the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport (DTW), who asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to speak to the media, explained that many employees who had previously been vocally opposed to the union recently boarded in response to cuts in the schedule, unfair disciplinary penalties and an increased workload due to low staff numbers.

“They are removing more and more full-time lines. Many of these lines are not 40-hour-a-week lines, they’re 32-hour-a-week lines, so it’s not a full-time job,” they said. “You have a high-profile person who gave his life, his body to this company, paid his dues. To keep weekends on a good shift, they have to take a 32-hour line, which means a pay cut.”

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They claimed that the arbitrary provisions created a culture of fear within the airline, and that the schedule cuts also reduced paid leave for employees, prompting them to sign union permits.

“We were beaten there. When you work on the ramp, you tear your body apart, that’s part of the job. It’s very difficult, our bodies are not adapted to it,” they added. “We need specific work rules. We do not have it. We need an attendance policy. We do not have it. We need equal conditions for everyone. We do not have it. And a culture of fear. We need protection. We don’t have any security. If they want you to disappear, they can make you disappear.

In a post-publication statement, a Delta spokesperson said: “Delta’s direct relationships are a stronger, faster and more effective way to drive improvements than representing these relationships. Our people benefit from their direct relationship, bringing change to Delta every day.”

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