By NICOLE GRANT and JEANNE ELLIOTT
(Nov. 20, 2015) — There are sisters flying through the air — and no, we’re not talking about the flying nun.
They are our sisters (and brothers), the more than 20,000 flight attendants at Delta Air Lines, and they are fighting for a union. This significant, mostly female, workforce is the largest group of airline employees in our country that does not as yet have the right to a voice in their workplace. And when you’re 37,000 feet in the air and responsible for the safety and security of hundreds of people, you need a voice.
Without a union — a seat at the table — in collective bargaining, Delta flight attendants have lost over 60 years of the progress enjoyed by their sisters and brothers at other unionized U.S. air carriers such as American, United and Alaska. In fact, unionized flight attendants have done all the heavy lifting for improvements in work rules and workplace safety — and recognition as professionals who are the “last line of defense,” particularly in the aftermath of the tragic events of 9/11.
Workplace and personal safety are major issues faced by this workforce in their challenge to unionize. Flight attendants are our first responders during an in-flight emergency and yes, the last line of defense in security threats. These workers want to be able to participate in important decisions that impact worker safety, mitigating risks that can result in on-the-job injuries. Delta Air Lines has locked them out of the conversation for making necessary improvements.
Mobilizing efforts to improve working conditions have focused on increasing minimum rest requirements, workplace hazards and exposures that cause injuries and health implications, minimum retirement benefits, high costs of health insurance and profit sharing inequities, and numerous other issues.
As anyone who has ever been on a long flight knows, air travel takes its toll physically. Man (and woman) was not meant to fly — or to fly for extended periods of time, with the in-flight environment having a huge impact on one’s body. Everyday exposures to cosmic radiation, poor cabin air quality, occupational noise, turbulence and lifting excessive carry-on baggage makes this a hazardous occupation.
In fact, federal government statistics for workplace injuries/illnesses have consistently shown that aircraft cabins are dangerous workplaces, with flight attendant injury rates many times higher than those experienced by employees in private industry as a whole. Flight attendants need a union and representation that will give them a voice to protect their bodies and enable them to enjoy a long career in their chosen profession.
And then there’s the point of dignity and respect for the awesome responsibilities of these safety professionals. According to one flight attendant, Delta Air Lines (with corporate headquarters in Atlanta) exudes a patronizing attitude that restricts women’s power with the promise to “take care of you little ladies.”
These workers are ready to take care of themselves and they need help — your help!
Their organizing campaign with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) is gaining momentum, using cutting-edge technology to collect union authorization cards from this huge, nationally dispersed workforce. If you fly Delta Air Lines, please make a point of talking to your flight attendants. Let them know that you support their right to form a union and have a voice in their workplace and working lives.
In September, the M.L. King County Labor Council’s Executive Board passed a resolution in support of the Delta organizing drive. Delta flight attendants are looking to build awareness and support throughout the labor community. Please consider passing a similar Resolution in your union, making sure that your members know about this historic campaign and that flight attendants are looking for support from passengers and (importantly) from the labor community and its activists.
Unions give workers power, control in the workplace and a level playing field. With flight attendants being entrusted with the safety, health and security of thousands of passengers on a daily basis, they deserve the empowerment that union representation can give them. And there is no better time for a worker to be empowered than when they are protecting your safety in air travel!
Nicole Grant is Executive Secretary Treasurer of the M.L. King County Labor Council. Jeanne Elliott is Legislative Representative for the IAM Organizing Campaign