Delta absorbed Northwest – and their union. But MSP flight attendants didn’t stop fighting

MSP-based Delta flight attendants gear up to vote “yes” to joining the IAM during a meet-and-greet event in Bloomington last month.

MSP-based Delta flight attendants gear up to vote “yes” to joining the IAM during a meet-and-greet event in Bloomington last month.

For many of the 1,800 Delta flight attendants based at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, the upcoming vote to form a union is about more than wages, benefits and work rules. It’s about getting back what they lost after Delta’s merger with MSP-based Northwest Airlines four years ago.

“I’ve lived with a contract and without a contract now,” said Tammy Rustad, a flight attendant from St. Paul with 19 years experience at Delta and Northwest. “For me, I prefer things in black and white.”

Rustad is not alone. At a “meet-and-greet” event hosted in Bloomington last week by the International Association of Machinists, the union vying to represent flight attendants, Rustad and other veterans of Northwest talked about what losing their union meant – and what they stand to gain in the upcoming election.

‘A lot of tears’

Robert Clark remembered hearing the announcement four years ago, in the wake of Delta’s acquisition of Northwest, that flight attendants at the newly organized company had voted to reject union representation. Northwest workers had been members of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA.

“There were a lot of tears; people were very sad,” Clark said. “I was sad, but it really touched me seeing how many lives it actually affected.”

Clark, who lives in Eagan, has worked as a flight attendant out of MSP for the last 15 years. It’s a career path that would have fizzled early, he said, if it weren’t for his union.

After a passenger filed a complaint based on Clark’s sexual orientation, his employer moved to fire Clark. “The company just wanted to take this person’s word,” he said. “But the union was like, ‘This letter should have gone in the trash.’”

Tammy Rustad, a flight attendant from St. Paul, and Robert Clark, flight attendant from Eagan, attended the IAM meet-and-greet last week.

Tammy Rustad, a flight attendant from St. Paul, and Robert Clark, a flight attendant from Eagan, attended the IAM meet-and-greet last week.

Negotiating for safety

Burnsville resident Laurie Gandrud, a 20-year veteran flight attendant, was quick to itemize flight attendants’ losses in the transition from union Northwest to non-union Delta, from safety provisions and grievance procedures to retiree health insurance and pensions.

In particular, Gandrud hopes regaining a union contract will lead to protections against long workdays on short rest, situations that put safety at risk, she said. “I’m looking forward to safety and health improvements,” she said. “I’m very passionate about getting back what we had and what we lost.”

Gandrud’s passion and enthusiasm is reflective of the grassroots organizing effort, begun just over two years ago. One flight attendant at a time, union activists collected signatures on 12,000 cards – from 60 percent of all Delta flight attendants – asking the National Mediation Board to conduct an organizing election.

Rustad, who was part of a delegation that delivered the 12,000 cards to the NMB in Washington D.C., called the organizing effort a “large accomplishment,” especially given that flight attendants don’t share a common worksite. “These are people most of us have never met or seen face to face,” she said.

Industry leader, or industry standard?

Flight attendants at the meet-and-greet reported that anti-union mailings already have begun arriving in their mailboxes, as Delta attempts to discourage the organizing campaign.

But Angie Brewer, a 25-year veteran of Delta, said the co-workers she talks to are not likely to change course. Most Delta flight attendants, Brewer said, see disparities between their wages, benefits and work rules and those of flight attendants at other airlines – and they look to collective bargaining as the equalizer.

“We’re the No. 1 airline, and I believe that,” Brewer said. “We outrank all the other airlines in terms of passenger service and customer satisfaction. We have been turning huge annual profits.

“But as flight attendants, we have been told our work rules, wages and benefits are ‘industry standard.’ I believe we should lead the industry too.”

Clark agreed: “If it wasn’t for us, the company wouldn’t be making all this money,” he said. “We’re the face of Delta. We’re the ones face-to-face with the passengers. It’s important they share that by pay and benefits across the board, otherwise it’s a slap in the face.”

Union wave at Delta?

Other workers at Delta – notably the pilots, who enjoy better work rules and sick leave than flight attendants – have used collective bargaining to improve their working conditions, and Rustad anticipates the flight attendants’ vote will be the first in a wave of union victories at the Atlanta-based carrier.

“When we do win the vote, I expect Delta will be at the negotiating table, ready to go,” Rustad said.

“Delta keeps telling us we’re the world’s best employees,” she added. “I’d love to be compensated and treated as such.”

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