An effort to unionize workers at Delta Air Lines is facing major pushback from the company, including literature suggesting workers would be better off spending their union dues on video games, alcohol and sports.
Delta workers have described a full-court anti-union press: advertisements playing nonstop in break rooms, weekly anti-union meetings and stands full of leaflets discouraging unionization.
“Anti-union videos play by our time clocks, anti-union literature is distributed in our break rooms, managers are designated to push the anti-union agenda, and employees are held captive,” said Dan McCurdy, a Delta worker and union advocate who stressed he is not affiliated with any union or outside organization.
The fight to unionize Delta’s workforce is reaching a critical point as union advocates are pushing for a union election. That process involves getting just over 50% of the airline’s ramp and cargo workers to sign cards indicating they want the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) to represent them.
If the union collects enough signatures, it would trigger a vote on unionization. Kip Hedges, a former Delta baggage handler who now volunteers as a national coordinator for the IAM drive, predicts that anti-union efforts will become even more aggressive if they get to that step.
“Delta will turn up their anti-union campaign even more during this period and will likely use legal delaying tactics to keep a vote from happening for as long as possible while they beat the crap out of the workforce,” said Hedges, who was fired in 2014 after his own efforts to get the company to pay higher wages.
The anti-union drive has been in the news in recent days after this reporter shared a poster, passed on by a pro-union source, that Delta distributed internally to dissuade unionization. Addressing workers, the poster suggested that the roughly $700 in annual dues for the union could be better spent on video games. Other posters told employees to take the money and put it into going to sporting events or buying beer.
Reaction online was swift and unforgiving. The airline was accused of condescending to its workers at best and deceiving them at worst. A number of commenters brought up the higher wages that a union could deliver. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) took a hard line against the airline.
“Shame on Delta for this condescending bullshit,” he tweeted.
The National Education Association, one of the largest unions in the country, said in an open letter that Delta was no longer one of the organization’s “preferred airlines.”
“When you turn your back on the values of your customers, they will certainly turn their backs on you,” said NEA President Lily Eskelsen García.
The poster — and related anti-union propaganda from the airline — is the result of Delta enlisting the public relations firm FTI Consulting in its “Don’t Risk It Don’t Sign It” campaign. Based in Washington, D.C., FTI is better known for working on the oil and gas industry’s efforts to stymie climate change policy and counts Chevron, Exxon Mobil Corp., Shell and Halliburton among its clients.
The internet server behind Delta’s anti-union website hosts dozens of websites promoting the oil and gas industry, a reverse search of the IP address reveals. It also hosts FTI’s own company sites.
Dontriskitdontsignit.com is a flashy site that uses a similar aesthetic to other political advocacy organizations and campaigns. A menu of options to click on shoots by the visitor with warnings about the privacy issues of being in a union and the destructive force that unions are. The site came with a corresponding app, developed by New York-based developer Ascender Studios, that shows workers what else they could buy with union dues.
FTI staffs Energy in Depth, a pro-fossil fuel “research, education and public outreach campaign” that floods social media with misinformation about public policy to reduce planet-warming emissions. It also created Western Wire, the “go-to source for news, commentary and analysis on pro-growth, pro-development policies across the West” that routinely publishes stories styled to look like journalism while boosting oil and gas development and attacking environmental groups. Earlier this year, two of the company’s employees posed as reporters to press the general counsel of an environmental group suing Exxon Mobil over its role in climate change for an interview, a potential violation of public relations industry ethics rules.
In a statement to HuffPost, FTI denied shaping Delta’s messaging.
“We do not comment on our clients or the work we do for them,” a spokesman said. “Nonetheless, we did not contribute in any way to the material discussed in this article, nor have we engaged in any of the alleged practices described.”
Delta did not reply to repeated requests for comment. But, in a statement to the media, the airline implied that it wouldn’t back down from its fight against workers unionizing.
“Our employees have the best total compensation in the industry, including the most lucrative profit sharing program in the world,” Delta’s statement said. “They want and deserve the facts and we respect our employees’ right to decide if a union is right for them.”
While the company didn’t directly address the posters shared on social media, the airline did add that it just wanted to pass on information to its workers.
“Delta has shared many communications,” the company’s statement said, “which on the whole make clear that deciding whether or not to unionize should not be taken lightly.”
Delta took a harder line against the union, and the exposure of its anti-organizing propaganda, in an internal communication sent to workers. An article published on DeltaNet, the airline’s employee newswire and information hub, framed the dissemination of the posters and other anti-union propaganda produced for the airline as purely informational.
“We want everyone to have the facts,” said Gareth Joyce, the senior vice president for Delta’s Airport Customer Service, in a quote included in the internal article ― which was provided to HuffPost by a source with access to DeltaNet.
“Our employees receive unmatched total compensation and profit sharing compared to IAM-represented airlines; the IAM hasn’t been part of the success we created together,” added Joyce. “We make every effort to take care of our people and will continue to ensure they have access to the truth.”
Organizers say the attacks don’t seem to be having their intended effect.
“We have been doing a ton of home visits to Delta workers who have signed a union card in the past,” said Hedges.
“We are getting an 80% return rate when we actually talk to someone at the door,” Hedges said. “If all goes according to plan we could file for an election this summer.”
“People are extremely receptive when we can reach them,” said McCurdy. “It’s hostile inside the work areas.”
The company’s tactics aren’t winning it many friends, however. Labor unions across the country decried the airline’s leafleting Thursday, calling it inappropriate and condescending. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is running for president, called the airline’s behavior a “disgrace.”
“I say to Delta: Stop trying to undercut workers’ right to form a union and negotiate for better wages,” Sanders said in a tweet Thursday night.
This article has been updated with comment from FTI.