Delta Airlines should immediately stop sabotaging efforts to unionize the ground crews that make their operations possible, a group of nine senators told Delta CEO Ed Bastian in a letter Wednesday.
The sharply worded note contrasts Bastian’s personal wealth to the “paycheck to paycheck” vulnerability his frontline workers experience. But beyond the surface text, the willingness of the senators to escalate critique of Delta hints at a wider political philosophy that could pose a far larger threat to major corporate profiteers across several industries.
“It has become clear that Delta’s management has a highly coordinated and strategic plan to suppress the efforts of over 40,000 workers,” the letter from Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and other progressive stalwarts said. “Mr. Bastian, you earned almost $40 million in the last two years while paying workers who make Delta Air Lines arguably the most financially successful airline on the planet as little as $9 per hour.”
Delta’s rank-and-file workforce have been building support for a staff union for almost six years now. Some workers have been fired or faced other retaliation for working on the union drive, according to multiple reports, and almost all of them have been subjected to an unusually brazen anti-union campaign from their bosses. Delta has long defended its union-busting efforts by pointing to the company’s profit-sharing policy that generated $1.3 billion in worker bonuses last year.
But the airline’s campaign has hit the rocks this spring because a picture of one of the anti-union posters in a worker break room went viral. The sign mused that workers might prefer to spend the money that goes to union dues on video games instead — omitting the compensation hikes that a union would be able to extract in exchange.
Sanders — whose office said he’d led the letter-writing effort — and Warren are prominent candidates for the 2020 Democratic Party nomination for the White House. The men and women who joined them in writing to Bastian are heavyweights in their own right: Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Bob Casey (D-PA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Ed Markey (D-MA), and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) also signed onto the letter.
“Your attempts to deny the right of Delta workers to form a union is corporate greed, plain and simple,” the nine senators wrote. “If Delta workers gain union representation they will finally have the right to collectively bargain with Delta for a living wage, decent benefits and safe working conditions.”
The missive adds to the backlash Delta has reaped since the video games poster hit the web a week ago and drew national attention to the firm’s “full-court anti-union press” of constant at-work messaging against unionization in concert with a D.C.-based consulting firm, as HuffPost documented. One major union — the National Education Association — has hinted at potential direct pressure tactics from outside by removing Delta from the list of airlines it recommends to members and uses to book its own travel. Many of the tens of thousands of tweets about the poster over the past week have included the hashtag #boycottdelta.
Though Delta earned this fire for trafficking in the type of flagrant hostility and deceitful internal lobbying against unionization that employers typically try to keep out of the papers, the spotlight that’s come for them could yet expand. The higher pay unionization extracts for members could prove to be a fairly small hit compared to what Delta and other airlines could face in the coming years.
Progressive economists and policymakers have coalesced in recent months around a particular suite of ideas that should worry not just Bastian and Delta, but everyone making millions from the current state of play in the airline business. This new line of thinking, dubbed “public-tizing” by some, is rooted in a longstanding critique of U.S. capitalism but calls for a much more aggressive response from government.
Like banking, telecommunications service, and many other consumer-facing industries, the airline business has become dangerously concentrated. A tiny list of firms control all or nearly all business done in these sectors — many of which are all but mandatory for U.S. workers and citizens to participate in as customers. Delta’s ability to squeeze those big executive pay packages and lavish shareholder payouts from its business relies, in turn, on squeezing both workers and customers. Delta and other airlines have been free to gouge passengers — in both the wallet and the knees, as anyone who’s ridden coach in a plane reconfigured to fit as many people as possible without regard to comfort can attest — because there isn’t a robust enough level of competition to curb such schemes organically.
That’s part of why the public-tizer crowd wants to see these consumer-harming cartels broken up. If government could actually use its long-rusted anti-trust powers — born from the country’s first Gilded Age, when intense and undemocratic disparities in wealth and economic power created a society that looked a lot like today’s only with worse technology — the Deltas of the world might not get away with this kind of stuff so readily.
The public-tizers note, though, that it will likely take some legislative action as well as a willing executive in the White House in order for antitrust law to retake its rightful place in American civics. The trust-buster toolkit has been weakened for decades in the courts courtesy of a willful and diligent campaign by conservative ideologues — or “Supreme Court decisions influenced by conservative economic theories,” as Marshall Steinbaum more gently summed the matter in a recent and detailed rundown of how the modern airline industry is able to thrive at your expense. It will take thoughtful and specific political labor to revive the laws thus gutted.
Two of the senators who signed onto the bully-pulpit letter to Delta’s well-heeled chieftain on Thursday intend to take these reforms up from the White House, of course. Warren and Sanders are each longstanding advocates for increased use of public power, distinct though Warren’s self-stated mission to save capitalism from itself may be from Sanders’ maximalist socialism.
The Delta story also offers one potentially useful lens for watching the evolution of the political movement each of them hopes to lead over the course of the 2020 primary and general elections. Consider the other names on the letter to Bastian, and the political history they’ve lived. Those progressive joiners came of age in a Democratic Party where support for labor rights and open hostility to union-busting efforts were defining pillars; signing onto a sharp-tongued letter damning a flagrant demonization of worker solidarity is a relatively easy political lift.
But where Warren and Sanders and the public-tizers hope to go, the political and policy challenges are likely to grow. A lot of people have made a lot of money for a long time from the concentration and privatization schemes that must be undone in order for major American consumer industries to begin responding to healthier incentives.
Big-dollar donors understand how Democrats and unions are wedded. But the more aggressive Teddy Roosevelt-style trust-busting that public-tizers are bucking for might not go down so easy.