No, Delta Air Lines, Inc. isn’t going under. However, as of November 3, 2010 Delta’s staid employee culture will have forever changed. On that day 20,000 flight attendants will find out if they will become unionized or remain as they have for 86 years, non-union.
This is one commentary I would love to reread a few years down the road and admit that I had been overly pessimistic. Unfortunately this event is destined to be a lose-lose proposition for the company because of the parties involved, the emotion and contention surrounding the issue, and the relative impotence company leadership has to orchestrate a desirable outcome; no matter who ends up being the winner.
Over the years Delta has assimilated other airlines through mergers and acquisitions; Northeast, Western, Pan Am, and most recently, Northwest Airlines. This latest acquisition has presented a different set of integration problems, mainly in terms of melding Northwest’s distinctly different employee culture into Delta’s.
Throughout its history Delta has had an enviable reputation in the industry for maintaining relatively peaceful and cooperative relations with its various labor groups. So unusual was this environment in the airline industry that up until CEO Dave Garrett retired in the mid 80’s, company employees were often described by outsiders as ‘Deltoids’, while inside they referred to each other as family members. Founder C.E. Woolman was a purveyor of the old business adage that “if you take care of your employees, they’ll end up taking care of you”. This philosophy was a proactive policy which kept organized labor at arms length. Even when subsequent C-suite executives moved away from this patriarchal model the employees repeatedly rejected union organizing whenever it came to a vote. Only the pilots and a small group of flight dispatchers are represented by organized labor. When compared with other airlines even these relationships have been cooperative and for the most part non-confrontational. Delta has never had to deal with a strike by its own employees.
The same cannot be said for the employee groups at Northwest Airlines, now fully vested employees in the Delta brand. The Northwest employee environment had been heavily unionized and battle hardened as a result of years of contentious dealings with their management. Each labor group had their own reasons for maintaining this perspective, however one would have thought those reasons would have become moot, at least temporarily, when they came under Delta’s leadership. Union organization was a primary goal from day one for each labor group coming into the Delta fold.
As a result of their deep mistrust for management, rank and file Northwest employees are conditioned with a bias for organized labor to conduct their collective bargaining. It became apparent early on that this perspective endures no matter whose name is on the airplane; and now Delta must deal with it.
The high priced process of acquiring financing, ironing out legal details, and getting federal regulators onboard with a Delta – Northwest marriage was the easy part. Delta now faces the most difficult phase of this latest acquisition; the seamless integration of vastly different cultures into a single entity.
My observation from the inside is that the legacy Delta flight attendants do not appear to be well suited for this confrontation based on their years of peaceful co-existence with Delta management. They came to a gunfight with a knife and find themselves reeling from the realization that their longstanding relationship with the company will change as a result of the new kids on the block.
On the other hand, the veracity and group think of the Northwest pro-union advocates has done nothing to ingratiate themselves to their new colleagues that hold any difference of opinion on the matter. Simply put, it has evolved to the edge of civility.
Because of the various companies now assimilated under the Delta name over the years it is not unusual to hear one employee ask another if they are an “RD” or Real Delta (as opposed to former Western or Pan Am). The Northwest flight attendants have taken to parodying this moniker into “Real Dumb”; the underlying reason for past resistance to unionization. So much for “can’t we all just get along”?
Why is this important and why will it change Delta forever? The employee that spends the most time with the customer in the airline industry is the flight attendant. And as the saying goes,”if mama’s not happy, nobody’s happy”. If the flight attendant labor group votes to have union representation then work rules and the way things have been with management for eight decades will change dramatically. Human nature being what it is, certain behaviors and attitudes will surface signaling that many of Delta’s legacy mama’s (and papa’s) are unhappy.
On the other hand, if the outcome of the vote is to reject unionization there will be 7000+ ticked off former Northwest “mama’s dealing with the Delta customer. Neither scenario is good in a customer service industry that disguises itself as a transportation entity. As a result of this lose-lose situation, the next 6 months will test the human side of how Delta will deal with this conundrum.
Maybe the best to hope for is: “Delta is dead. Long live Delta”