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Up Next At Delta: Worker Pacts

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As it adjusts flight schedules, changes staff uniforms and repaints tailfins, Delta Air Lines has a tremendous task in its merger with Northwest Airlines — reaching agreements with the unions representing its employees.
The newly merged company, now Detroit Metro Airport’s largest carrier, cleared a big hurdle before the merger, reaching a collective bargaining agreement with the pilots union that represents Delta and Northwest employees.
However, for flight attendants, ground handlers, ticket agents, skycaps and other employees, the merger is more complicated. Those jobs are unionized at Northwest, but nonunion at Delta. Delta’s pilots are the company’s only major group of union-represented employees.
The Association of Flight Attendants and the International Association of Machinists are working to get their message out to Delta employees. Both unions plan to hold elections, once the National Mediation Board determines that Delta and Northwest are a single carrier.
Ed Bastian, president of Delta and chief executive for Northwest, said Tuesday that the carrier hopes to resolve labor issues by the end of 2009. In a federal filing, Delta said a decision on the pilot seniority list is expected this month.
Delta also announced it will cut flight operations by 8% in 2009, which likely would result in job cuts as well.
That will likely work in the unions’ favor in terms of organizing workers, said Gary Chaison, professor of labor relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.
“There’s nothing like announcements of reductions to heighten interest,” he said. “The unions can say we can offer you a voice in the process.”
Chaison said he believes the unions will win their elections. If they don’t, integrating operations could be difficult.
“It could create an incredible mess. … No one wants to be part of a group where some are represented and the others are not,” he said.
But the airline industry has a history of messy labor issues. Pilots for America West and US Airways have been disputing their seniority list for more than three years after the merger of those airlines.
American Airlines and Trans World Airlines flight attendants had a rocky battle when TWA was acquired in 2001.
Not wanting to drag it out
But Chaison says Delta has an interest in solving labor issues quickly and quietly.
“Delta is very much intent on creating the impression that with this merger, it’s business as usual. … Wall Street doesn’t like uncertainty,” he said.
Delta officials could not be reached Wednesday.
Stephen Gordon, a machinists union official, said he is certain the union will be successful when it asks Delta workers to organize.
The union represents about 12,500 Northwest employees including ground handlers, ticket agents, customer service representatives, skycaps and reservation agents. Delta has about 18,000 employees in those classifications.
About 2,900 employees are based in Detroit, said Gordon, president of the machinists union’s District 143.
Gordon said Delta has engaged in antiunion efforts, including an announcement last month that noncontract employees would receive raises of 3% or 4% effective Jan. 1.
The announcement pointed out that union workers would only get the negotiated contract raises of 1% to 1.5%.
“It’s an attempt to divide and conquer,” he said.
Northwest’s flight attendants union, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, has sued Delta to stop it from integrating the two carriers’ seniority lists until the group votes on union representation.
Northwest has about 8,000 flight attendants and Delta has about 13,000. About 2,500 Northwest flight attendants are based in Detroit.
The AFA has already tried to organize at Delta, most recently this spring, said union spokesperson Corey Caldwell.
In that vote, 99% of those participating voted in favor, but the vote didn’t pass because not enough employees participated in the election.
The AFA filed interference allegations against Delta in that election with the National Mediation Board, which rejected its claims in October.
Caldwell said the union is campaigning among the flight attendants. She said the announcement of job cutbacks only heightens awareness of the benefits of union membership, like rules governing layoffs and notifications.
“We’re getting people energized and feeling that this decision really does impact them,” she said. “Now it’s more apparent than ever that these are insecure times.”
Caldwell said once the three-member National Mediation Board makes a single-carrier determination, all union leaders have 14 days to file for an election.
Caldwell and Gordon said the Obama administration would likely bring new, more labor-friendly appointees to the National Mediation Board, which governs union organization for airline employees.
“For Delta and Northwest flight attendants, it would be beneficial if it happens after a new administration took office,” Caldwell said. “But that’s not to say we’re not ready now.”

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