Delta Air Lines recently announced it would not furlough any flight attendants this year. Meanwhile, American Airlines and United Airlines plan to lay off thousands. Delta flight attendants are non-unionized while those at American and United are. Can we draw any inferences about organized labor in general from this dichotomy?
I’ll argue both sides below then offer my own thoughts. The catalyst for this piece was a tweet from a Delta flight attendant:
We officially are doing no furloughs of flight attendants at Delta. I’m taking another voluntary leave & love the range of optional leave opportunities we received. Shows one size fits all of @afa_cwa and @FlyingWithSara doesn’t work as THOUSANDS members get furloughed. ☹️
— Kris Fannin (@krisfannin) September 5, 2020
Argument #1: No Furloughs At Delta Shows That Labor Unions Don’t Protect Employees
The facts are undeniable. At airlines with powerful labor unions, flight attendants will be furloughed. By the thousands. Meanwhile, at non-union Delta, no flight attendant will face involuntary furlough in 2020.
Look at how well Delta flight attendants fared. Delta flight attendants banded together to collectively share not only the benefits of the good years but the sacrifice of the present turmoil. Through shared sacrifice, they took care of one another and will emerge stronger and better-positioned to extract concessions when demand for air travel picks up again.
Of course Delta made this much easier. Over the years, it has built up trust and rapport with its flight attendants by providing them industry-leading pay and benefits along with lucrative bonuses that have served as a strong disincentive for unionization. Furthermore, Delta offered generous early separation and retirement packages and opened up other divisions for flight attendants to transfer to.
In short, flight attendants at Delta did not need a labor union to protect their interests. Instead, Delta made a good faith effort to care for its employees precisely because union officials did not start from a bargaining position of unreasonableness.
Argument #2: This News Shows Why Delta Flight Attendants Need to Unionize
Any comparison between the labor situations at Delta and American/United is only helpful in the context of the broader health of each airline. Delta entered the pandemic well-positioned to weather it and its actions suggest less about labor than the overall health of the company. After all, Southwest Airlines is also relatively healthy and not furloughing any of its unionized flight attendants this year.
Furthermore, many flight attendants took an early exit package because they were afraid of being furloughed. Without union protections, Delta could lay off workers how it pleased, when it pleased. Thus, the “cooperation” from Delta flight attendants was more fear-based than actually beneficial.
Finally, Delta flight attendants do not receive minimum pay, so while flight attendants may still be employed, they stand to take a deep pay cut that will reflect their reduced flying hours.
My Own Thoughts
An issue that I struggle with (which is quite different than understanding it), is the seniority system built into any union. Some of the best flight attendants I’ve ever had the pleasure of flying with have been extremely senior. Some of the worst flight attendant I’ve ever had the displeasure of flying with have been extremely senior. Similarly, some of the the best flight attendants have been young…and some of the worst have been young.
But as much as I’d theoretically love a merit-based system for career advancement in every career field, that is such an inherently difficult standard upon which to judge flight attendants. Some folks may find a flight attendant abrasive while others find her humorous or even charming. Who determines whether a flight attendant is performing better than his peers?
Seniority plus a specified standard of service seems like the best approach. Every flight attendant should be expected to be friendly and professional and terminated if they are not. But I don’t see how a merit system, especially based upon customer feedback or supervisor feedback, would work in a practical sense.
As for the union issues, I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Unions are extremely helpful in holding management accountable. I don’t like that unions sacrifice junior members for older members, but can at least appreciate they do so under the guise that junior members eventually become senior.
Delta is unique and I don’t know that we can make any general observations about unions based upon the situation at Delta. But knowing many Delta flight attendants personally, I must say the culture at Delta is refreshingly different than at American and United and that Delta’s aversion to flight attendant unionization has led to outcomes for Delta flight attendants that those at American and United could only dream about (I’m speaking primarily about the generous profit sharing).
I don’t think unionization is the right approach for Delta employees and I also think that the model of shared sacrifice demonstrates a far better ethos than the idea that “I’ve worked far too long and hard to sacrifice even a penny” (that’s what we hear from many senior flight attendants at both American and United).
It’s Labor Day in the USA and the issue of labor is ever-present but particularly salient during this difficult time. I’m so happy that no flight attendant at Delta will be involuntarily furloughed. Delta demonstrates that unions are not the only solution to protect employees and that employees have great power, even without a union behind them, to extract meaningful protections from their employers.
image: Delta AFA