Inside the AFL-CIO
Issued Every Tuesday
Column #25 September 11, 2001

Union Organizers Put to the Test
At Nissan, Delta Air and Cingular

By Harry Kelber

Three upcoming union representation contests will be closely watched by labor and its ill-wishers: the United Auto Workers vs. the Japanese automaker Nissan in Smyrna, Tenn.; the Assn. of Flight Attendants vs. Delta Airlines, and the Communications Workers vs. Cingular Wireless.

In July, the Machinists lost an election involving Boeing’s 17,000 white-collar and professional workers. Despite the fact that 49,000 of the company’s production workers belong to the IAM, the union was rejected by a vote of 13,142 to 2,329.

The UAW filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board on Aug. 14 for an election among Nissan’s 4,100 production and maintenance employees. A secret-ballot vote is expected within two months. This will be the first balloting at a foreign-owned auto company since 1989, when Nissan workers rejected the union by a 2-to-1 margin.

Four years ago, the UAW gathered enough signatures to call for an election, but its leaders held back because they felt they couldn’t win. Other foreign auto companies like BMW and Mercedes-Benz have been operating in the largely non-union South for years, but the UAW has failed to organize any of them.

In fact, the only major auto plants in the United States that are unionized are the UAW’s “Big Three” — General Motors, Ford and DaimlerChrysler — but they were organized about 70 years ago. Nissan and others have held the union at bay by paying workers the same wage rates as UAW members, although benefits are significantly inferior. With lower labor costs, they enjoy a competitive advantage over the “Big Three.”

Nissan spokesman Frank Standish spouts the usual anti-union prattle: “It’s our policy,” he says, “to maintain open and productive relationships among all employees without the interference of a third party.” Between now and the election, the UAW has to expect a high-pressure campaign to discredit the gains it has won for America’s working people.

Meanwhile, flight attendants filed a petition with the National Mediation Board on Aug. 29 to request a representation election for 20,000 workers at Delta Air Lines. It will be the largest election ever in the U.S. airline industry. Flight attendants at every major airline but Delta have been organized for years.

Delta attendants’ pay rates are traditionally near the top of the industry, but benefits and work rules have lagged behind. The recently concluded negotiations between Delta management and pilots, who won an industry-leading contract, are a cause for encouragement. At a Washington press conference, Delta rank-and-filers told how many of them had spent their vacations, layovers and holidays organizing for the union. Their enthusiasm is uplifting, but the airline, which has contracts only with pilots and some dispatchers and pilot trainers, remains hostile.

“We work for the same company. We deserve the same pay increases, benefits and work rules that the pilots have,” Joan Harvey, an Atlanta-based flight attendant, told reporters. “And the only way to get them is with a contract.”

An airline spokeswoman, Sharon Wibben, says: “We are confident that Delta flight attendants will resist attempts for union representation, as they have done consistently in the past, and continue a 60-year tradition of remaining union-free.”

The National Mediation Board, which supervises labor relations in the airline and railroad industries under the Railway Labor Act, must verify that 35% of eligible Delta flight attendants have signed authorization cards before it calls for an election.

Cingular Wireless and the CWA have negotiated a neutrality and card-check agreement that could apply to about 10,000 employees in nine southern states and Puerto Rico. Under the Aug. 9 agreement, the company recognizes CWA as a bargaining representative if the union submits a majority of signed authorization cards for each of the states. The mailed ballots will be counted by the American Arbitration Assn.

Cingular, a joint venture of SBC Communications and Bell South, was created through the merger of 11 regional wireless companies. CWA currently represents about 10,000 Cingular employees in 16 states who were organized under other neutrality agreements.

With so many advantages, CWA should have an easy time recruiting the 10,000 non-union Cingular employees. Even the vice president for labor relations, Lew Walker, sees a benefit to the company if all workers are covered by a union contract. It’s helpful for them when the company can treat all employees the same in terms of benefits and working conditions, he says.

CWA, the leading union in the telecommunications industry, is relying more and more on the neutrality/card-check method of organizing rather than calling for NLRB elections.

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