What Is Delta’s Beef Against Unions?

by Miles Jackson

Delta fights any effort at employee unionization. Airlines have high operating costs, so every effort is made to cut expenses. Apparently, Delta feels strongly about the potential of unions to raise its operating costs. That explains Delta’s logic to fight efforts for its employees to unionize. Pilots are already members of a union, and they make up a considerable cost in wages to the airline. Before we get into the anti-union poster campaign that Delta has unveiled, let’s dive into a little brief history.

Delta Does Some Things Very Well

Delta does some things very well including getting planes out on schedule. Their onboard service domestically is definitely a step above the other U.S. airlines as well.

But Delta Also Often Puts Its Foot in Its Mouth

Delta has a history of being controversial when it feels threatened. CEO Richard Anderson once insinuated that the Middle East carriers actually were responsible for the 9/11 attacks in an on-the-air televised CNBC interview.

When Qatar landed its first A380 flight in Atlanta, Delta pulled out all the stops to thwart the Middle Eastern carrier. And Delta was petty. Qatar held a pre-launch party at the Fox Theater in Atlanta. Delta immediately responded by cutting off its previous financial support to the Fox.

Qatar Airways A380. Qatar/Flickr

Qatar Airways A380

When the Qatar A380 plane finally arrived on its inaugural day, passengers had to disembark via a stairway, as the only available jetway fitted for the A380 was somehow made unavailable by a Delta aircraft parked at that gate.

Then, just earlier this month, Delta announced its new New York to Mumbai route but its press release was a full on rant about the troublesome Middle Easter subsidized carriers. Cue the whine.

An Old, Yet New Dispute: The History of Unionization at Delta

As Delta merged with Northwest Airlines on December 31, 2009, it set the stage for an epic business versus labor battle. Northwest was heavily unionized, yet at Delta, only the pilots and flight dispatchers were unionized. The union has been trying to get Delta employees back into the ranks of union members ever since.

That struggle continues today. I will provide a brief history of the difficulties.

Unlike most other industries, airlines are governed by the Railway Labor Act (RLA) instead of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The RLA was passed in 1926, the RLA was designed to keep the country’s railroad infrastructure operating by making unionizing (and potential striking) very difficult. President Franklin D. Roosevelt expanded it to cover airlines as well a few years later. Under the RLA, individual workplaces cannot organize; rather, entire “work groups” within a covered company (which for airlines means flight attendants, customer-service workers, pilots, etc.) must vote for union representation. The unions have been trying to get the ‘vote’ from Delta employees ever since they lost many in the Delta-Northwest merger.

Delta employees at the inaugural A220 flight. Photo by Chris Dong

Delta flight attendants, ramp workers and more have not been unionized. Delta argues that this delivers a greater quality of service for its passengers. Many would argue in defense of the airline’s point –- employees who get a share of the airline’s profit-sharing are invested in towing the company line. Unions would argue that the employees are not treated equally fair and benefits for all could be improved with union representation; not to mention higher wages.

Well, in a controversial campaign to discourage its workers from unionizing, Delta (the second largest airline in the world) produced and distributed posters telling its employees to buy a video game console rather than pay union dues.

Delta Created Posters to Attack Unionization

Delta has come under fire after photographs emerged on social media that revealed posters encouraging Delta employees to spend their money on video game consoles rather than union dues.

The union at the center of the battle is the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM.) The IAM is an AFL-CIO/CLC trade union which represents more than 600,000 active and retired members in more than 200 industries. Most of its membership is located in the United States and Canada.

On May 9th, the IAM released their own official statement saying “IAM Campaigns Strike a Nerve with Delta Bosses.

In their release the union remarks:

Delta has resorted to defaming and spewing lies and misrepresentations about the IAM. They also continually display anti-IAM propaganda in the workplace. These are all hallmark signs of how well the IAM campaigns are doing and how scared Delta is of their employees having a voice in their careers. The day when Delta ramp workers and flight attendants will finally be able to bargain for the compensation, benefits and work rules they deserve is coming quickly, and that has Delta terrified.”

Social Media Uproar Over Delta’s Tactics

Here are a few examples, as shared on social media:

View image on Twitter
The first such post came from Eoin Higgins, an editor and writer at Common Dreams, tweeted the photograph on May 9th. The poster included the following text:

“Union dues cost around $700 a year. A new video game system with the latest hits sounds like fun. Put your money towards that instead of paying dues to the union.”

The poster featured the Delta logo and the URL of the website Don’tRiskItDon’tSignIt.com.

Union Responds to Delta’s Tactics

Quick to respond, The International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers tweeted stating:  “I hear that Delta wants to help you buy a fancy new console. All you have to do is say no to the dastardly Machinists Union, which wants to organize the company’s ramp and cargo workers.” #GameOverDelta”

The Machinists Union additionally offered their own poster, tweeting an image of it and Delta’s side-by side with the text: “Here’s our take on your flyer, Delta. #GameOverDelta”

The union also posted photographs of similar fliers. Another implies Delta employees should spend their money on watching baseball and football instead of becoming union members.

Delta Confirms They Are The Source


Delta’s Anti-Union Website

Delta has confirmed to various sources that the airline did indeed create all of the flyers cited above, including the video game one, and that Delta was also behind the website Don’tRiskItDon’tSignIt.com, which discourages employees — at times in incendiary means — from joining the IAM.

In a statement, a Delta spokesperson offered:

The direct relationship we have with our employees is at the very core of our strong culture and it has enabled continuous investments in Delta people. Our employees have the best total compensation in the industry, including the most lucrative profit sharing program in the world. They want and deserve the facts and we respect our employees’ right to decide if a union is right for them. Delta has shared many communications, which on the whole make clear that deciding whether or not to unionize should not be taken lightly.”

The acknowledgement does not surprise me…but it’s still disappointing to see this dispute get ugly. In fact, for lack of a better term, this is insulting. Insulting to the intelligence of Delta employees.

The Upshot

Delta gets people from point A to point B on time with the greatest consistency. Their front line employees are fantastic with customer service. It’s the management on Delta Ave in Atlanta which has lost the drive for true customer satisfaction and lost touch with their elite flyers in many respects.

I believe the current campaign is getting a bit nasty. The posters which have been made public (and claimed by Delta to be their own design) belittle their employees. As proven in the past, Delta is not the most sensitive airline. Their present behavior is not surprising, but a certainly disappointing.

Whether the employees unionize or not, I really do not have an opinion as to which is right. I hope that the campaigns are done professionally, highlighting the advantages of each side without degrading the other. In the end, I still want a happy, friendly and professional front line employee taking care of me.

Let’s hope that’s the final result after this battle between the airline and the union.

What do you think of Delta’s latest poster campaign against unionization?

The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.


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John rogerson May 11, 2019 - 3:36 pm

What’s Delta’s beef with unions: is that a serious question? Unions have a history of being inflexible and undermining airline efforts to provide reasonable service to customers. In any transaction both company and customer and company and employee there needs to be a balance where both benefit. Unions completely skew that in favor of employees with excessive wages, benefits and restrictions place on airlines management of cabin crew at the expense of the company and customers. There is a reason many airlines have gone bankrupt twice in the last 20 years and it is because of unions preventing airlines from making necessary changes in a down economy. The big 3 constantly are held to have the worst cabin crew service and that’s because unions tend to protect mediocrity and people keep their jobs for 40 years providing substandard service. Europe has unions in some of the airlines but it is a higher quality of people who provide better service, take pride in their efforts and are young. I saw a 65 year old flight attendant on an 11 hour flight on business class on American. I’m sure she is happy with unions.

Miles Jackson May 11, 2019 - 7:59 pm

John Rogerson –

You stated that ‘the big 3 constantly are held to have the worst cabin crew service and that’s because unions tend to protect mediocrity,’ but Delta (part of the big 3) is not unionized in the cabins of their aircraft.

Perhaps it’s an American characteristic of service that’s to blame.

You point out that European carriers do much better.

How do you feel about Delta’s current tactics in their battle with the union?

Thank you for feedback.

John Rogerson May 11, 2019 - 10:22 pm

The optics of Delta’s tactics don’t come off well with the video game ad. Maybe it is millennial targeted marketing but Delta should have been aware of the spin by mainstream media and unions who use pressure tactics and will belittle it. Delta may have been better off articulating its philosophical position of why unions hurt and have hurt airlines and ruin long term employment viability. That would play out better in the media but how swayed would the employees be by it?

Miles Jackson May 11, 2019 - 10:36 pm

John Rogerson –

All valid points and I hope Delta will be able to constructively and positively campaign.

I’m sure we’ll see more chapters of this story.

BKS May 17, 2019 - 5:42 am

If Delta truly cared about their employees they would be encouraging savings plans, not video games and expensive nights out with the family.

Miles Jackson May 17, 2019 - 9:35 pm


True. I think that’s a fair expectation from an employer. Perhaps Delta was arguing that either investment was wasteful?

A May 11, 2019 - 5:53 pm

I’m with Delta on this one. Unions do a lot of good for their members, including better health insurance, leave, and pay. However, Unions also protect bad employees who need to be fired, insert themselves into management level decisions, and generally take away flexibility of the airline to respond to customer needs if one employee doesn’t like something. This is coming from a liberal democrat, FYI.

Miles Jackson May 11, 2019 - 7:54 pm

Thank you for reading and your comment. So you are balancing better health insurance, leave, and pay against the airline’s inability to fire underperforming employees more easily?

I can see both sides. Really my question at the end was about tactics. How do you view this in this most recent ‘campaign?’

Christian May 11, 2019 - 6:39 pm

A very well considered article. I’m a bit torn on this whole argument. On one hand, unions can and sadly often do shield less competent employees from being fired, which causes problems for the company as well as the customer. On the other hand, you correctly pointed out how Delta consistently acts in a truly reprehensible fashion whenever the airline’s interests are not at the top of everyone else’s agenda. Additionally, unions assure a reasonable standard of living for members, which is crucial for society as a whole. $9 an hour Delta employees in Atlanta aren’t exactly able to save up for a down payment on a car, let alone a house. I’d say that some sort of compromise might be reached where the airline has substantially greater firing power but accepts unions. Southwest is unionized but still has great people. Take a page from their playbook.

Miles Jackson May 11, 2019 - 7:51 pm

Christian –

Thank you for your thoughts and perspective on the matter. As with most things there are always advantages and disadvantages that come with choices.

Marye May 12, 2019 - 8:38 am

look at the issues with other airlines and their service standard and compare to Delta…Delta overall has the friendlier, more customer service driven employees of any airline of the Big 3 that I’ve flown. They are constantly upgrading inflight options instead of taking away. Their flight attendants so not scowl at me, instead they look happy to be doing their job. In addition when talking with them they have extremely positive things to say about Delta and their working experience.. I asked for a blanket on a United flight once and the flight attendants actual response was “well honey, I will look but we aren’t Delta!” Unionization creates a third level of management who runs The employees and gets in between employer and employee. It also provides a system that encourages mediocrity. It isn’t working well at the other airlines so I certainly hope that delta doesn’t end up with more unions.

Miles Jackson May 12, 2019 - 5:32 pm


I believe you have summed up the crux of the argument well. From a customer perspective unionized services may detract from a perceived level of performance.

From an employee’s viewpoint unions often offer better benefits and greater job security.

We haven’t heard the last from this timeless conflict yet.

Thank you so much for your comment and for reading.


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