The Magazine

The Obama Team’s Other Lost Election

Despite the administration’s thumb on the scale, Delta doesn’t unionize.

Dec 20, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 14 • By FRED BARNES
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President Obama has done more favors, more often, for organized labor than any other president, outpacing even FDR and Harry Truman in the lightning speed with which he has rushed to fulfill the union agenda. Calling Obama pro-union is putting it mildly.

The Obama Team’s Other Lost Election

Marching unto defeat: labor activists outside Delta headquarters

AP / Erik S. Lesser

His paybacks to unions have come in every conceivable form: appointments, executive orders, legislation, bailouts, regulations, policy changes (notably at the Department of Labor), protectionism. Most recently, the Obama administration renegotiated the trade pact with South Korea, in part to gain the approval of the United Auto Workers (UAW).

But Obama has failed to cajole Congress into enacting organized labor’s fondest dream, the elimination of the secret ballot in union organizing elections. He hasn’t, however, given up trying to make it easier for unions to organize workplaces and industries and more difficult for employers to resist. That’s a fundamental Obama policy. 

Which brings us to the case of Delta Airlines. The Obama administration stacked the deck in favor of two unions, the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM), in a series of elections this fall after Delta acquired Northwest Airlines. There was a lot at stake.

For labor, it was the biggest drive to unionize a company since it signed up 70,000 workers at Ford Motor Company in 1941. Success in organizing 56,000 Delta employees would represent a dramatic reversal of the decades-long decline of unionization in the private sector.

With the Obama administration on their side, the unions expected to win the elections and end Delta’s status as the only major airline with a largely nonunion workforce. (Delta pilots have been union members for years.) But the AFA and IAM lost in what was not only a shattering defeat for labor, but also a reflection of the sharply diminished appeal of unions for most workers today.

The final election, conducted last week, delivered the most stunning verdict. Delta workers at airports and reservation centers rejected the IAM, 70-30 percent. In November, flight attendants voted against unionization, 52-48 percent. Ramp (or “under the wing”) employees voted not to join the IAM, 53-47 percent. And maintenance workers turned down the IAM more decisively, 72-28 percent. Sensing defeat, labor unions had earlier decided not to attempt to unionize four other groups of employees: mechanics, technical writers, meteorologists, and “simulated technicians.”

It was a clean sweep for Delta and shocking to labor organizers. As a result, 17,000 former Northwest employees who had been union members will become nonunion once the election results have been certified. That may take a while because the unions have filed formal complaints that Delta interfered with the election. They are seeking a new election. Unions do this routinely when they lose an election. They are poor losers.

How did Delta thwart the unions? The company pointed out its pay and benefits are 10 percent to 15 percent above those of unionized employees who had worked for Northwest and have been for years. Higher pay, better benefits, no union dues—that was the argument. And it proved to be compelling.

To defeat the union campaign, Delta had to overcome a serious obstacle put in its path by the Obama administration. Airlines, like railroads, are subject to the Railway Labor Act, under which labor relations are governed by the National Mediation Board (NMB). The administration created a pro-union board, which then changed election rules to favor unions, especially the two seeking to organize Delta.

The first steps were two appointments to the three-member NMB that produced the pro-union majority. Both are former union executives, Harry Hoglander of the Air Line Pilots and Linda Puchala of the Flight Attendants. That was followed by a request by the AFL-CIO to change the rule for airline and railroad union elections. For nearly 80 years, it took a majority of the entire group of workers to win an organizing election. The NMB decided only a majority of those voting was necessary to prevail.

The AFA had lost two elections under the old rule. They had officially filed for elections at Delta before the AFL-CIO intervened, but withdrew their requests in anticipation of the NMB decision. While elections at other airlines proceeded under the old rule, the new rule was applied to the elections at Delta.

“The rule change seemed to be aimed specifically at Delta,” says Glenn Spencer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Indeed it was. But it didn’t work. By the way, the Carter and Clinton administrations looked at changing the election rules, but chose not to. The change engineered by Obama also makes it all but impossible to have an election to “decertify”—or throw out—an airline or railroad union.

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