Democrats in Georgia walk a tightrope as unionization intensifies in Delta

When an overwhelming majority of House Democrats publicly demanded that Delta Air Lines Inc. not interfere in union organizing efforts, it was the absences that were glaring.

Earlier this month, more than 140 lawmakers wrote a letter calling on Delta to adopt a neutrality agreement that would essentially prohibit the company from saying anything to dissuade workers from unionizing — putting a strong stance on the side of organized ones workforce.

But not a single Democrat from Georgia, where Delta has been headquartered since 1941, signed the Congressional Labor Caucus' Feb. 12 letter, despite the support of five Two days later, Republicans wrote a similar letter.

Democratic absentees included Rep. Nikema Williams, whose district includes both Delta's corporate offices and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, and Rep. Hank Johnson, who represents some of the city's suburbs. Both are members of the Labor Caucus.

“I have taken a neutral position,” Johnson said in an interview about the proposed neutrality agreement. “Delta is trying to prevent unionization, and the unions are trying to organize. I’m a friend to both of them.”

Their reluctance highlights the dilemma facing swing-state Democrats ahead of the 2024 election: They are caught between supporting the economic engines of their districts and maintaining loyalty to their union base. The balancing act is becoming increasingly complicated, especially in the South, as the party leans left on social issues and unions make increasingly defiant demands to address what they say is growing inequality.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Georgia, where Democrats took back control of the U.S. Senate in 2021 after sidelining it in the presidential race for the first time since 1992, and other unions have announced organizing efforts in the South, where Hope to break a decades-long losing streak.

But unions face an uphill battle in these states as workers and Democratic lawmakers are less familiar with federal labor law that protects their right to organize.

“It's like rollerblading uphill,” said Hasan Solomon, national policy and legislative director for the International Association of Machinists, one of the unions trying to organize Delta. “It’s extremely difficult, but not impossible.”

Neutral to neutral

Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Airport was the world's busiest airport in 2023 and is an economic engine for the state, transporting 105 million people that same year, according to FlightGlobal. It serves as Delta's main hub – responsible for nearly 75% of passenger traffic – and is home to the airline's aircraft maintenance and repair division, Delta TechOps.

Many of those workers live in Williams County, meaning she has to be especially careful about issues affecting the airline, she said.

“The airport is about 10 minutes from my house, and many of the workers who work at the airport and make it the busiest and most efficient airport in the world are my constituents, and they all deserve a voice at the table,” Williams said. “I want to make sure I hear from all parties and make an informed decision on everything.”

Williams did not elaborate on why she refused to sign the Labor caucus letter, but said she planned to send her own. “I support people’s right to join or not join a union.”

While Delta's pilots are represented by the Air Line Pilots Association, more than 45,000 technicians, flight attendants and other workers at the Atlanta-based airline are not unionized, making it a special case among its competitors. More than 80% of the workforce at American Airlines, United Airlines Inc. and Southwest Airlines Co. is represented by unions, compared with 20% at Delta.

“We firmly believe that every employee has the right to choose or reject union representation without interference, and Delta has the right and responsibility to ensure that its employees can make their choice from an informed perspective,” Delta said. spokesman Anthony Black in a statement. “All this is done in full compliance with applicable labor law. Exercising their right to vote, Delta employees have repeatedly foregone representation over the past 20 years in favor of maintaining our direct relationship.”

Black said the company welcomes dialogue with these members of Congress.

Organizational efforts

The Teamsters and the Association of Flight Attendants and the Machinists launched a major campaign to organize Delta workers in November 2022.

Workers have reported intimidation and reprisals for organizing, the lawmakers said in their letter. Delta threatened its employees with termination of their benefits and distributed anti-union literature, it said.

“If your boss tells you, 'I don't think you should sign this union card,' people are going to be nervous,” Solomon said. “We don’t believe there is a level playing field here. We don’t think it’s on par at all.”

However, unions are not eager to criticize Democrats in Georgia. Those who did not sign the letter still signaled their support for the cause in other ways, Solomon added. “Nikema is a friend,” he said, adding that they had discussed a separate future letter.

And Rep. Sanford Bishop, a Democrat who represents southeast Georgia, sent his own letter to Delta on Feb. 9 calling on the company to respect workers' rights but stopped short of calling for a neutrality agreement.

Both Johnson and Williams said they saw no evidence of intimidation, joining many Republicans and management advocates.

“Delta says they will not try to intimidate, threaten and use false information to persuade workers – I take their word for it,” Johnson said. “The company has the right to communicate with its employees, but communication should be based on correct information, without threats and without tricks.”

Non-partisan matter

While unions did not block Democrats in Georgia, they did receive support from five Republicans who urged Delta to adopt a neutrality agreement “with respect to any efforts by your employees to unionize, to meet with your employees, to Implement this Agreement and commit to bargaining in good faith if your employees decide to form a union.”

This isn't the first time unions have scored points from Republican members of Congress.

Last summer, several House Republicans signed a letter supporting the Teamsters in their negotiations over a contract with the United Parcel Service. Some Republican senators also supported striking UAW workers at Detroit's major automakers and supported the United Steelworkers in their opposition to the sale of US Steel Corp. to the Japanese Nippon Steel Corp.

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), who signed both letters, has been a vocal pro-union advocate throughout his time in Congress and was a cosponsor of the unions' flagship bill – the PRO Act – that overhauls U.S. labor laws would.

Republican Reps. Lori Chavez-DeRemer (Ore.) and Marc Molinaro (N.Y.), both of whom also signed the Teamsters letter, and Reps. Don Bacon (Neb.) and Mike Lawler (N.Y.) joined Fitzpatrick in the letter to Delta. All five represent swing districts where tight races are expected in November.

Nevertheless, there is deep skepticism on the right about neutrality agreements, which conservatives see as gag orders against management. Ultimately, they say that neutrality agreements are not neutral at all and that unions have an unfair advantage.

“If you only know what the organizers tell you, you will only hear good things about the union,” said Bradley Byrne, a former Republican congressman from Alabama and a management lawyer.

Still, unions are a hard sell in most workplaces in the South, he said.

“It’s not in our DNA,” Byrne said.