The International Association of Machinists on Monday began a campaign to organize 6,000 Delta Air Lines ramp workers, including 680 employees of the bankrupt carrier at Salt Lake City International Airport.
"We all love working for the airline, but we have been treated like temporary employees, rather than permanent employees," said Bruce Church, who has loaded and unloaded baggage at the airport for Delta for 25 years.
Delta's work force is the least unionized of the major U.S. airlines. Except for its pilots, none of Delta's employees belonged to a union when the airline filed for bankruptcy in September 2005.
Since then, Delta has slashed jobs and benefits in order to cut labor costs by about $900 million a year, mostly from its non-unionized workers. More than 4,000 jobs have been eliminated in the past 13 months.
"As part of the bankruptcy, they've been forced to endure pay cuts, frozen pensions, lost holidays and lost vacation time, without any say in the process," union spokesman Joe Tiberi said from his base in Maryland.
By contrast, Southwest Airlines is the most heavily unionized U.S. carrier and makes a profit, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The low-cost carrier's pay rates are at or above the airline industry average, according to MIT, which cited a Harvard Business Review study.
Anthony Black, a Delta spokesman, said the organizing effort was not a surprise.
"Unions want to to get dues and this is how they go about it," Black said.
"Delta has had a long-valued and direct relationship with our people, and we will continue to work directly with them to improve the company and make this a great place to work," Black said.
At least three previous unsuccessful efforts have been made to organize Delta workers, including an attempt in 1997 by the Transport Workers Union to represent 8,000 ramp service workers who worked for Delta at the time. Ramp workers are the ground crews who work on the tarmac, not including mechanics.
This time is different, Tiberi said. Delta workers contacted IAM a month ago. The employees already had set up their own internal organizing structure in a dozen locations, including the Salt Lake airport, where Delta operates its westernmost hub.
Employees on Monday began passing out authorization cards to workers. If IAM receives cards supporting a vote from at least 35 percent of the workers, the union will ask the National Mediation Board to conduct an election. To be certified, IAM would have to be approved by 50 percent plus one of the workers.
"It's always an uphill battle, but we feel confident. The mood is different than nine years ago" when the TWU tried to organize Delta workers. "It's a good time to do it," Church said.
Tiberi said Delta employees have seen that employees at other bankrupt airlines have fared better than they have. IAM members at United Airlines, US Airways, Northwest Airlines and Aloha Airlines successfully negotiated new defined-benefit pension plans.
Beside pension fears, workers are afraid they will lose their jobs if Delta merges with another carrier after it exits bankruptcy, Tiberi said.
"We represent the majority of ramp workers in the industry. We can ensure the fair integration [of Delta workers] with another airline, such as Northwest or United, if a merger happens," he said.
The IAM represents more than 100,000 ramp workers, flight attendants, mechanics and other airport employees. It has collective-bargaining agreements with 150 domestic and foreign carriers, including Alaska Airlines, Continental Airlines, El Al, Varig Brazilian Air and Philippine Airlines.
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