Two posters made by Delta as part of an effort to dissuade thousands of its workers from joining a union drew a torrent of criticism after they were posted on social media Thursday.
The posters included messages targeting the price of the dues that company workers would be paying if the union formed.
“Union dues cost around $700 a year,” one noted. “A new video game system with the latest hits sounds like fun. Put your money towards that instead of paying dues to the union.”
The other, with a picture of a football, was framed similarly.
“What does $700 mean to you?” it said. “Nothing’s more enjoyable than a night out watching football with your buddies. All those union dues you pay every year could buy a few rounds.”
In the charged world of social media, in which talk about socialism and the evils of unfettered capitalism percolates in the conversations of an invigorated left, the posters fell with a thud.
“You know what sounds fun @Delta,” Rick Smith, a liberal podcaster, tweeted. “Health care. A living wage. Dignity. Respect. A voice on the job. Safe working condition. Retirement security. $700 Is a great investment once you look at all you benefit from.”
The posters also drew attention from prominent officials on the left, including presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). The latter said they were “condescending.”
“A gaming system can’t give you: fair wages, health care benefits, job security, retirement benefits,” Brown wrote on Twitter.
One of the most popular tweets of one of the posters was shared some 22,000 times.
But the reaction to the posters at Delta, where efforts to organize about 44,000 workers — separate campaigns for flight attendants and ramp, tower and cargo workers have been underway for years — was not immediately clear.
James Carlson, a coordinator with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace workers, the union which has been working to organize the workers, said he did not know where the poster was distributed but said an employee had sent it to him earlier. He said that Delta has been papering its employee break rooms with anti-union fliers.
“Some are like what you saw today — a stupid, insulting message to spend your money on a video game system instead of union dues,” he said. “They try to interfere with the employees’ exercise of freedom of association. And that’s not allowed.”
Delta spokeswoman Lisa Hanna did not respond to a request to confirm the authenticity of the posters.
“Our employees have the best total compensation in the industry, including the most lucrative profit sharing program in the world,” said a statement she distributed. “They want and deserve the facts and we respect our employees’ right to decide if a union is right for them. Delta has shared many communications, which on the whole make clear that deciding whether or not to unionize should not be taken lightly.”
Carlson said the efforts to unionize the staff began in 2013, a few years after Delta had merged with Northwest, which resulted in the loss of union representation for Northwest’s ramp service, customer service and store workers. The IAM is currently in the process of collecting signed union cards from workers; support from 50 percent of the work group would authorize a vote on the union.
Delta has been notoriously anti-union for years, Lance Compa, a lecturer and labor expert at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, told The Washington Post. Compa said he wasn’t surprised the company had targeted union dues as part of its recent campaign.
“Somebody took that off the shelf,” he said. “The question of union dues has always been something employers hammer away at.”
Compa said that many large companies employ anti-union law firms and consultants to help them tamp down on union efforts. They also utilize strategies such as anti-union speeches, “captive audience” meetings, in which managers try to warn employees about the negative effects of a union, and one-on-one meetings.
“It’s a multibillion-dollar industry,” Compa said. “It’s standard operating procedure for companies when workers start organizing."
Carlson said Delta had been meeting with employees to push back on the union campaign.
“They brief employees on how bad the union is and how great it is at Delta and why you don’t need the union,” he said. “If you’re a flight attendant, you have a briefing before your flight.”
Compa said that American labor law makes it illegal to threaten or make reprisals against workers who are forming a union but leaves companies room to predict adverse consequences, such as job losses and layoffs. But the legal distinction isn’t always clear to workers, he said.
He said he believed that there was a more positive climate for unionizing currently then there had been in years. He said he believes that small but high-profile unionizing efforts at digital media companies has had an effect.
“There’s all this wealth flowing to the top, and workers are starting to say, wait a minute, we deserve a share of this,” he said. “The expectation was that [millennials] were very individualistic and they wouldn’t be interested in unionizing. But they’ve faced the same problems that workers in a subordinated employment relationship have always faced — pressure for more production, more hours of work ... all the while holding down wages and benefits.”
A wave of union organizing swept through digital media companies in New York in recent years, among them, Gizmodo Media Group, now known as G/O Media, the Intercept, Vox and Vice, a small but visible movement that demonstrated a renewed appetite for unions among younger workers.
Over the past year, workplace organizing has begun to show some force in Silicon Valley, where employees at companies such as Google, Microsoft and Salesforce have protested company policies and products in highly visible forums, including petitions and walkouts. In March, the staff of the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter announced plans to unionize, which would be a first for a high-profile technology company.
Delta’s anti-union effort includes a slickly produced website, DontRiskItDontSignIt.com, which warns of “the dangers of the IAM," — pointing to a Justice Department investigation into a unionizing effort at a separate company from 2015, and embezzlement and other misconduct investigations involving about a dozen local union officials from around the country.
“12 Reasons not to trust the IAM with your money," it says.
Delta made $5.2 billion in pre-tax income in 2018 and gave away about $1.3 billion to its employees in bonuses, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Union supporters were quick to point to the company’s financial success in recent years — it made $10.5 billion in revenue the first quarter of the year and saw its profits increase 31 percent to $730 million. Its chief executive, Ed Bastian, reportedly received $13.2 million in compensation in 2017.
Flight attendants at Delta, who make an average of $58,000 a year, were looking for a boost in pay to bring them in line with other competitor airlines such as United, American and Southwest, according to a fact sheet distributed by Carlson.
Previous efforts to unionize Delta’s flight attendants, who currently number about 24,000, according to Carlson, have failed over the years.