In a major win for unionizing flight attendants, Delta Air Lines announced on Monday that it will begin paying its flight attendants during boarding as the company faces a renewed union drive backed by the largest flight attendants’ union in the country.
This is a first for a major U.S. airline; U.S. airlines typically don’t pay their flight attendants during boarding, meaning that attendants are providing free labor up until the plane door closes. The new pay will begin on June 2, although attendants will only be paid half of their normal hourly rate.
The airline will also increase its domestic boarding time from 35 minutes to 40 minutes for narrow-body flights, which the company says is to “add resiliency to our operation.”
The flight attendants’ union, organized by Delta workers seeking representation from the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), took credit for the pay change, saying in a statement that it is “the direct result of our organizing — and a desperate attempt to prevent their other new boarding policy from creating the kind of anger that it deserves,” referring to the expanded boarding times.
“As we get closer to filing for our union vote, management is getting nervous,” the union continued. “But this also shows that Delta could have been paying Flight Attendants for boarding all along. And while this is a positive change, Flight Attendants are still being forced to fly more often thanks to short staffing.”
Delta also announced a raise of 4 percent for its employees earlier this year, which is less than the inflation rate of 7 percent last year. This is their first raise since 2019, despite dangerous conditions for airline workers due to both COVID and an increased amount of unruly passengers throughout the pandemic.
Delta AFA has been in the midst of organizing since 2019. Delta workers have the lowest proportion of union members among major airlines, with less than 20 percent of its workforce in a union. It’s the only major airline in which flight attendants aren’t unionized; pilots make up the largest proportion of unionized workers within the airline.
AFA has tried repeatedly to unionize Delta flight attendants, but has fallen short each time; most recently, workers narrowly lost the union by only about 300 votes out of about 20,000 flight attendants in 2010, after facing intimidation and other union-busting tactics from the company.
Delta has continued its anti-union tactics during this union drive. In 2019, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) filed a complaint with a federal agency that oversees labor complaints within the airline industry, accusing the company of illegal union-busting tactics like retaliating against union activists and coercing workers into voting against the union. IAM was running a separate union drive from the AFA campaign that appears to be dormant now.
The complaint came after the company made two posters trying to turn workers against joining a union by emphasizing the cost of union dues. “Union dues cost around $700 a year,” read one poster. “A new video game system with the latest hits sounds like fun. Put your money towards that instead of paying dues to the union.” The posters provoked ire online, including from figures like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont).
The company has also sent anti-union emails and launched a website populated with anti-union talking points, likely taken from consultants hired to bust the union campaign. But AFA President Sara Nelson says that this campaign is different from previous campaigns to unionize the group, as it comes amidst a flurry of labor union activity from workers across the country, and a pandemic that has heightened workers’ awareness of their material conditions.
“The biggest thing that’s different about this campaign is that’s [sic] really being driven and fueled by the next generation,” Nelson told labor reporter Nell McShane Wulfhart in a Time article. “It’s not as if we don’t have people who have been around for decades involved, but the activists who are working on it day in and day out, putting in real time, putting their faces out there and working hard on this is the next generation.”
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