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Delta workers accuse airline of ‘culture of fear’ amid attempts to unionize

Date: January 5, 2023

By , The Guardian

Workers at Delta Air Lines are currently holding union organizing drives, citing tough working conditions in the US airline industry in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and stagnant wages despite the airline making hefty profits.

The unions are in the process of collecting a majority of union authorization cards to merit a union election with the National Mediation Board, announcing a joint collective effort several weeks ago.

Flight attendants are organizing with the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, ramp agents with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM), and mechanics with Teamsters.

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

Kip Hedges, a former Delta Air Lines employee and current union organizer with IAM, explained that a previous union organizing drive before the pandemic wasn’t successful in obtaining enough union authorization cards for an election, but the new effort has taken off.

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

“This whole idea of frontline and essential workers permeated into the atmosphere and I think that is having an impact on what Delta workers are thinking about,” said Hedges. “A huge issue for Delta workers is short staffing on the ramp. We used to have breaks between flights that allowed your body to recuperate a little bit. Breaks are shorter, they’re less frequent and arbitrary discipline is a factor in all of this.”

He estimated around 16,000 to 17,000 ramp agents currently work at Delta Air Lines, with the union organizing drive experiencing significant interest at major airports including Atlanta, New York City, Detroit, Minneapolis and Seattle. Ramp agents perform airplane servicing duties, including loading and unloading planes and guiding planes to and from gates.

Delta Air Lines has surpassed pre-pandemic profits and revenue coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic, with record revenue in the third quarter of 2022. The company expects earnings to nearly double in 2023.

A ramp agent at Delta Air Lines at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne county airport (DTW) who requested to remain anonymous because they are not authorized to speak with the media explained many workers who had previously been vocally opposed to the union have come on board recently in response to schedule cuts, unfair disciplinary write-ups and larger workloads due to short staffing.

“They’re removing more and more full-time lines. Many of these lines aren’t 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-seniority person, they’ve given their life, their bodies to this company, they’ve paid their dues. And in order to hold weekends on a good shift, they have to take a 32-hour line, which is a pay cut.”

They claimed arbitrary write-ups have created a culture of fear at the airline and scheduling cuts have also reduced paid time off for workers, which have driven workers into signing union authorization cards.

“We get beat up out there. When you work on the ramp, you’re going to tear your body up, that’s part of the job. It’s very hard, our bodies aren’t designed for that,” they added. “We need defined work rules. We don’t have that. We need an attendance policy. We don’t have that. We need a fair playing field for everybody. We don’t have that. And the culture of fear. We need protections. We have no protections. If they want you gone, they can get you gone.”

In a statement after publication, a Delta spokesperson said: “Delta’s direct relationship is a stronger, faster, and more effective way to drive improvements than representation from these unions would be. Our people benefit from their direct relationship by driving changes at Delta each and every day.”

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