RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And 20,000 flight attendants for Delta Airlines finish voting tomorrow, on whether to form a union. Delta is one of the last carriers that is largely non-unionized, and a victory by the union would be one of the biggest for the labor movement in decades. NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.
JIM ZARROLI: During her many years at Delta, flight attendant Candy Bruton has never been part of a union and she says she's never missed it. Delta, she says, is the kind of place where management and labor can talk openly and freely to each other.
Ms. CANDY BRUTON (Flight Attendant): And through my 39 years, we have actually done that time and time and time again so I don't see any reason to have to pay someone to negotiate for me and create an atmosphere that is us against them.
ZARROLI: Such is the image that Delta has long courted. Headquartered in Atlanta, Delta got its start as a crop-dusting operation in the deep South. And it has long had a kind of southern wariness toward unions. Although pilots are unionized, efforts to organize the airline's other workers have mostly come up short. Then this year, came Delta's big merger with Northwest.
Mr. STEVE GORDON (International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers): Are we ready to vote?
ZARROLI: Steve Gordon, of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, spoke about the merger at a rally in Atlanta last month.
Mr. GORDON: Shortly after its merger was completed, Delta dubbed itself as the one great airline, and we're really not one great airline yet.
ZARROLI: The merger brought Delta together with an airline that has a long history of strained relations with its unions, says David Gregory, professor of law at St. John's University in New York.
Professor DAVID GREGORY (Law Professor, St. John's University): Their labor relations were very, very acrimonious. And so you have one of the most militant union blocs now coming into one of the most culturally wary of union blocs.
ZARROLI: The pro-union forces have reason for optimism, thanks to a regulatory change approved earlier this year by the National Mediation Board. As a result of that change, unions trying to organize an airline's employees only have to win a majority of everyone who votes. In the past, they had to win a majority of all workers, and because so many workers never showed up to vote, Gregory says that was a lot harder to pull off.
Prof. GREGORY: So the union had a real, real tough road ahead of it. And now, with the new changes and the rules, the folks who don't show up simply aren't counted and the result is based on the majority of the folks who do vote.
ZARROLI: Still, company officials are doing what they can to turn back the tide. Delta spokesman Gina Laughlin says this isn't about money. Delta employees already earn a bit more than the industry average.
Ms. GINA LAUGHLIN (Delta spokesman): This is about an 80-year history and track record here at this airline, of our leaders and our employees working directly together. We think that works best. We would hate to lose that for our people and for our company.
ZARROLI: But the past few years have been brutal for airline workers and many Delta employees seem no longer willing to give management the benefit of the doubt. Atlanta-based reservations agent Cecilene Clark, who's voting for the union, says the issue for her is job security.
Ms. CECILENE CLARK (Reservations Agent, Delta Airlines): We would all like to know that we are able to live, maintain, and take care of our families. And I'd like to know that I am guaranteed a job. No one wants to hurt the company. We all would like to know that we have a job to come to so we can survive.
ZARROLI: The question now, is how many Delta employees share that sentiment. Delta officials insist that they want to preserve the airline's unique culture, but the merger with Northwest and the weak job market are testing whether that's still feasible.
Jim Zarroli, NPR News.
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