Delta Flight Attendant Union Rejection May Be Upended

Delta Air Lines Inc. flight attendants’ vote to reject union representation may be nullified by a U.S. labor board controlled by Obama administration appointees, according to a senator and an analyst.

The National Mediation Board, which in August ordered a new election for technicians who work on simulators for Delta, will take similar action after reviewing flight-attendant allegations of company interference in balloting, said Ray Neidl, an analyst at Maxim Group LLC in New York. “The deck is stacked in the union’s favor,” he said in an interview.

Democratic appointees of President Barack Obama gained a majority on the three-member board last year, and in May eased rules for organizing elections in the airline industry. Given that stance, the panel will probably order a revote by flight attendants, said Senator Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican.

“Nothing tells me they won’t do that,” Isakson said in an interview. “To come around and revote again, it’s a lack of respect for the employees.”

Nullifying the vote results announced Nov. 3 would present a new challenge to the position of Atlanta-based Delta as the least-unionized major U.S. carrier. The flight attendants rejected union representation with 51 percent of the 18,760 votes cast against organizing.

A mediation board spokesman didn’t return a telephone call for comment. The board referees relations between labor and management at railroad and airline companies under the 1926 Railway Labor Act.

Claims ‘Ridiculous’

A spokeswoman for Delta, the world’s second largest airline after United Continental Holdings Inc., declined to comment on what the board may do. “Claims of interference are ridiculous,” said Gina Laughlin, the spokeswoman.

The union plans to file interference charges by a Nov. 12 deadline, or seek an extension if the organization needs more time, said Pat Friend, president of the Association of Flight Attendants. Union leaders are discussing whether to seek a revote or a recount, in which votes cast via company computers would be disqualified, possibly changing the outcome, she said.

The computer ballots may have allowed the company to track whether employees voted, a violation of their privacy, Friend said. “We expect that this board will in fact investigate,” she said. “I believe they will ultimately agree with us that there was egregious interference.”

Laughlin of the airline said, “Delta did not track anyone’s votes.”

Previous Efforts

Harry Hoglander, a former pilot-union official who became the mediation board’s chairman in July, twice sided with the flight attendants’ union when it brought interference charges following losses seeking to organize at Delta in 2002 and 2008. In the first case he called for a new election and in the second urged additional investigation.

Hoglander was overruled both times by the board’s Republican majority. He declined to comment on the Delta allegations.

Obama gave the board a Democratic majority by adding former flight-attendant union President Linda Puchala, who replaced a former lobbyist for Northwest Airlines.

The Democratic-controlled board found in August that Delta tainted the organizing election for 91 flight-simulator technicians by announcing a pay increase and holding “coercive” one-on-one meetings. The board ordered a revote.

The workers in February had rejected representation by the International Association of Machinists, with 40 voting in favor. In the revote, the union lost support, with 18 voting for representation, Delta announced Sept. 16.

Republican Opposition

Hoglander and Puchala also made a change that lets employees form a union with majority approval from those who vote, rather than most of all workers in a class. Unreturned ballots are no longer counted as “no” votes. The change was made over protests from the panel’s sole Republican, Elizabeth Dougherty, a former White House special assistant.

The board’s political bent that began with the George W. Bush administration “is here to stay,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, a labor professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. “This board is clearly very divided.”

The board made a political decision in 2008 when it found no basis to further investigate Delta flight-attendant allegations, contrary to evidence, Bronfenbrenner said. In the upcoming case she said the board will follow the law.

Given the board’s May action to change voting rules, it will be watched carefully as to how it handles the flight-attendant protest, said William Swelbar, a research engineer specializing in air transport at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

“I see this board as having to tread very lightly,” Swelbar said. “There’s a lot of credibility to win or lose.”

Neidl said a revote probably will produce the same result, a defeat for the union organizers. “Delta is a strong entity,” he said. “They can survive nicely with or without a union.”

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