My mother has been a Delta flight attendant for 46 years. She’s saying “no” to unionization. But not for the reasons you’d expect.
I used to observe my mother getting ready for work — putting on her uniform, packing her roller bag, and securing a union button to her lapel. But one day there was a change in her routine: she left her button laying on her dresser.
I asked her why. She responded that it was “too late”. She was going to retire soon. And she was exhausted. On every trip she found herself debating coworkers and trying to make them see what to her was obvious.
Delta pilots were unionized. On layovers, they were sent to luxury hotels, while flight attendants on the same crew were shuttled to budget accomodations. Unionized flight attendants at other major U.S. airlines had higher pay.
But campaigning hardly seemed worth my mother’s effort when she had one foot out the door.
Ironically, it’s been almost 20 years since that conversation, and my mother is still working for Delta. To boot, Delta flight attendants still aren’t unionized.
Recently, the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) launched a large scale unionization drive at Delta. This is not the AFA’s first attempt to unionize Delta flight attendants. But, the pandemic posed unique challenges to the airline industry. And the AFA capitalized on the turmoil by rallying at the only major U.S. airlines without a flight attendant’s union.
I asked my mother whether she would vote to unionize in the AFA’s current campaign.
“No,” was her response. But it came with qualifications.
“If I was in an earlier stage of my career, I’d be for it,” she explained. “A union holds the airline accountable. The company and the union must reach agreement on rules. So management can’t change policies whenever it suits them. And the airline, not just the employees, faces consequences for breaking a rule.”
I asked for an example of Delta changing a policy to the detriment of flight attendants. She said that a few years ago, Delta increased the minimum time that flight attendants must work to maintain health benefits.
“There was nothing that we could do. Nobody to turn to.”
When I asked her about her decision not to vote to unionize, she elaborated.
“With my seniority in the company, I have it well. I have flexible scheduling, great benefits, and solid pay. So, I’d rather not rock the boat.”
She expressed concern that a union may stir up policies in a way that disfavors her. While unions usually offer greater protection for senior members, her seniority in the airline would not necessarily translate to seniority within the union. And she is not willing to jeopardize her hard-earned comfortable arrangement.
“Besides, sometimes the threat of a union is enough to get you what you want,“ she added. “And it doesn’t carry a membership fee.”
Her observation seems to describe events that transpired in early 2022. The AFA unionization drive was gaining traction. Amidst the pro-union sentiment, Delta announced they would begin paying flight attendants for boarding time.
So, it turned out that my mother’s stance against unionization was based on none of the usual reasons for opposition to organized labor — that unions are too political, that they are ineffective at negotiating, that they will protect bad workers at the expense of good ones, or that they will bring down company standards. Rather, she does not want to risk the benefits that she’s worked so long to secure.
My mother isn’t alone. Many flight attendants at Delta are in or past middle-age. And many have been working for the company for a long time. More generally, Americans are retiring later, with 9.1 million people over the age of 65 working full or part-time.
The AFA and other trade unions should take these statistics to heart. To gain support in a workplace with worker longevity, organizers must convince employees that the union has something to offer them at all stages of their careers. As my mother’s shift in priorities shows, employee interests evolve with time at a company.
And organizers should address tenured employees specifically. Like my mother, senior employees are likely to have earned special privileges. Unions must assure them that these privileges will be protected should the workforce be unionized and packages renegotiated.
Furthermore, unions must convince senior employees that the status quo is worth changing. Reasons that resonate with more junior employees, like more parental leave or protection against discrimination and harassment, may not hold as much weight with elder employees. Unions should provide value propositions tailored to the senior ranks. For example, unions can emphasize the role they play in protecting employees from wrongful termination, which could divest an employee of their retirement benefits.
I’m starting to doubt that my mother will ever retire from Delta. Voluntarily, at least. She’s one of those people that needs to stay busy to stay happy. And her job satisfies that need. Well, almost. As if flying wasn’t enough, she went to law school. Now she schedules her trips around the calendar of a municipal court where she works as a public defender.
So, it appears that the AFA has time to win her over, yet. But it’s going to take some convincing. After 46 years in the skies, she’s sitting (rather, flying) pretty.