Union solidarity key to Delta workers’ organizing campaign

Sara Nelson, president of the AFA-CWA, led a rally with leaders of the Teamsters and Machinists at the St. Paul Labor Center.

The largest private-sector union organizing campaign in the world came to St. Paul last weekend, as three unions seeking to bring together 45,000 Delta Air Lines ramp workers, mechanics and flight attendants rallied their supporters at the Labor Center.

The April 15 event drew international union leaders from the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA), the Machinists (IAM) and the Teamsters, as well as pro-union Delta workers from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and Delta outposts in New York, Atlanta and Detroit.

Delta pilots are unionized, but the remaining 80% of its workforce is not. Delta is the only U.S.-based mainline carrier where flight attendants, fleet service workers and mechanics are not represented by a union – for now.

“It is high time that we put a contract in the back pocket of every single Delta Air Lines worker,” said AFA-CWA President Sara Nelson, whose speech drew a thunderous ovation from more than 150 people inside the union hall.

Nelson’s union has supported organizing campaigns at Delta before, as have the Machinists and Teamsters. Sometimes those campaigns overlapped.

But last November the three unions announced an agreement to coordinate their efforts under the “Organize and Fly Together” campaign, with the Machinists supporting Delta fleet workers, the Teamsters supporting mechanics and AFA-CWA supporting flight attendants.

Teamsters Local 120 President Tom Erickson (R) and the Machinists’ Richie Johnsen praised the coordinated union campaign to support Delta workers.

Teamsters Local 120 President Tom Erickson, who serves on International President Sean O’Brien’s Executive Board, said he believes a coordinated campaign – in any industry – offers workers a better chance of making collective gains.

“Coordinated bargaining is not a novel idea,” Erickson said. “Finally, we’re waking up as unions across the company. This coalition should have happened a long time ago. It’s what we used to do back in the 40s and 50s and 60s, and now we’re going to do it again.”

Nelson led the crowd in chanting “I’ve got your back!” as the rally drew to a close.

“We have a lot of differences, and that is what makes us strong,” Nelson said. “But what we have in common is what brings us together. We all need to take care of our families. We all need access to health care. We all need a dignified retirement. We all need to take care of ourselves and our families when we are sick, especially when we get sick on the job.”

Delta is turning massive profits, and its executives are pocketing more of those gains than at other, more unionized airlines. CEO Ed Bastian’s pay was 26% higher last year than his peers.

Delta’s wages are competitive with other large carriers, Machinists Air Transport Territory General Vice President Richie Johnsen said, but it’s only because the airline knows that falling behind would add fuel to workers’ organizing drive.

“We carry that; the union members at other airlines carry that in bargaining,” Johnsen said. “We create that standard, but at Delta it’s a shell that doesn’t offer all the other things that those of us who have a contract enjoy. And that time is done.”

What would a union contract mean for Delta workers?

Nelson said the AFA-CWA contract at United Airlines is worth $100 million more annually than Delta flight attendants’ total compensation, including wages and benefits. The union contract also protects workers from arbitrary firings, establishes safety protocols and gives workers a say in work rules and conditions.

An MSP-based Delta cargo employee, who attended the rally but asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation, said safety standards plummeted after Delta absorbed Northwest Airlines, which was heavily unionized, in 2008.

“When we had a union, they would actually train people to do things safely rather than be forced to work unsafe at Delta,” said the employee, who has 32 years of experience in the cargo department. “We get a lot more pressure now to just get the work done rather than to do it right.”

The safety net for workers who are injured on the job, he said, also disappeared after Delta took over.

“I’ve seen guys get hurt, and they’re forced to leave because they can’t do the work anymore,” he said. “With the union, guys would get rehab for their injuries, or there was a part of the contract where they would … put you into a different job. Now, there’s no such thing.

“They don’t care about us. We’re a number.”


  1. […] main speakers included Dan McCurdy, a ramp worker at MSP Airport who worked half his career for Northwest under a […]

  2. […] engaged in the world’s largest private-sector union drive at any single company. That campaign held a rally here last month, which the Saint Paul Regional Labor Federation was proud to host at our union […]

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