Business & Economy

Twin Cities Delta employees continue unionization effort, ongoing since 2010

Delta Air Lines planes are seen on the tarmac
Delta Air Lines planes are seen on the tarmac of John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. In the Twin Cities and across the country Delta workers are fighting for unionization.
Yuki Iwamura | AFP via Getty Images 2021

Rob Lavigne remembers when Delta flight attendants missed the votes necessary to unionize in 2010, not too long after the Northwest and Delta merger. 

“I was there when they found out they lost,” he said. “It was just constant talk in the break rooms about how important it is to have a union.”

He was hired around then as a ramp agent, he said, 22 years old at the time. In the years after, he joined multiple unionization efforts — first in 2015, then another time tanked by COVID-19 as workers took buyouts and left the company. In each push, organizers fell short of the number necessary to trigger a union vote. 

While defeat has been an easy fallback, Lavigne, 35, said he’s part of another nationwide push for signatures. And this time, he said, it feels different. 

The latest campaign seeks unionization for more than 50,000 ramp workers, flight attendants and mechanics. While Delta pilots and dispatchers are unionized, the majority of employees are not. The unionization rate doesn’t come close to the 80 percent plus at American Airlines, United, Southwest and Alaska. 

Kip Hedges, a retired ramp worker who worked at Delta for 28 years, said that’s a problem. 

“The people at Delta desperately need a voice, a seat at the table,” said Hedges, speaking beside a recent union-organizing rally near the Twin Cities airport, where more than two-thirds of passengers fly Delta. 

“Without a union, I get so many calls from people and texts, saying, ‘I’ve been fired or I’ve been disciplined. Is there anything I can do about it?’” Hedges said. “For a company that’s the most profitable airline in the United States, they lag behind in almost everything compared to unionized carriers.”

Workers say they’re the labor behind Delta’s industry-leading reputation and should have compensation and benefits that lead the industry, too. They’re hoping that workers will soon have more bargaining power to push for more vacation time, sick days and better health care. 

Signatures at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport are expected to hit 80 percent, Hedges said, and in Atlanta — where the company is headquartered — signatures are pushing 50. He thinks they will be able to authorize a vote by fall. 

“This is the furthest we’ve been yet,” he said, “It’s a long, hard haul, but the finish line is in sight here.”

The latest push began toward the end of 2022, organizers said. Since then, support for workers trying to unionize has poured in from lawmakers and officials at the local and federal level. 

Minneapolis City Council Member Robin Wonsley was among the 30 workers and allies who showed up to the rally last week, near the entrance to Delta facilities. 

“I see how important this organizing drive is to the future of the Twin Cities economy and making sure that thousands of jobs here in Minneapolis and around the country are good jobs that support working class people,” Wonsley said. “Delta paints themselves as one of the best companies to work for, but workers are not experiencing that same PR that the public receives.”

Last year, the council member helped pass a resolution supporting Delta workers trying to unionize. It urged the airline to abstain from intimidating workers out of unionizing, an accusation that has long followed Delta. 

In February, more than 140 members of Congress signed a letter encouraging Delta’s CEO Ed Bastian to adopt a neutrality agreement and stay out of union organizing efforts. 

The letter, signed by Minnesota Democrat U.S. Representatives Ilhan Omar and Betty McCollum, points to a history of “deploying union-busting tactics, including threatening employees with termination of their benefits, distributing anti-union literature, and hosting an anti-union website.”

Delta said, in a statement, that it respects employee’s right to decide if union representation suits them. 

“We believe our direct relationship with employees has proven to be stronger, faster and more effective in driving improvements, which is why Delta employees have repeatedly rejected union representation from AFA and other groups over the past 20 years,” the statement reads. 

In April, Delta raised its minimum wage to $19 an hour, a 5 percent pay raise. 

Some workers say that’s not enough to live comfortably and pointed to 34 percent raises, over four years, that unionized Delta pilots won in a new contract last year. Pilots, including the union’s chair Captain Darren Hartman, have voiced support for other workers seeking unionization. 

“Having a union and legally enforceable contract has served Delta pilots well during our long history here at Delta,” he said. “Only through our union were we able to achieve the industry-leading contract that Delta pilots enjoy today.”

Delta cargo lead Miles Dousette said it’s a tight squeeze to pay bills. Coming from the U.S. airline with one of the highest-paid CEOs (Bastian made $34.2 million in 2023), there should be more money and better benefits to go around, he said. 

“We’re not fighting for the whole pie,” he said. “We just want a full piece and to stop fighting for the crust.”

Akin Agunbiade was hired about a year ago as a ramp agent. He said that only a handful of his hiring class of 15 have stuck around, blaming scheduling issues, insufficient pay and the grind of the job. He’s seen many people “getting hurt on the ramp, straining their body.”

“I pulled my back here,” he said. “I almost got hit with two cars yesterday.” 

Agunbiade said he got off to a rough start with Delta when he was told he could work full-time but found out five weeks into the job that he was working 24-hour weeks. He had already quit a previous job, he said, but had to find another to make ends meet. 

He said during his training, he and other new hires were discouraged from joining a union. But pretty quickly, the 25-year-old got in on organizing efforts.  

Rob Lavigne, who’s been pushing to unionize at Delta for over a decade, said younger employees like Agunbiade have helped bring new energy.

“After 12 years of attempting to unionize and losing you kind of have that beat down mentality,” he said. “But a lot of our younger co-workers just don’t stop.”

Lavigne says seeing other labor wins recently has been inspiring. People are educating themselves more — reading up on contracts from other airlines and federal labor laws. There’s a sense of solidarity.

“We’ve kind of built a community amongst ourselves of people organizing. It’s not just, ‘hey, go out, talk to people, get authorization cards signed.’ It’s ‘how are you doing outside of this?’” he said. “It’s building that community because you know when we win, the union’s not the third party here, it’s us … we’re an actual family.”