ATLANTA (Reuters) - Thousands of flight attendants at Delta Air Lines Inc have for a third time rejected unionization, dealing a major setback to labor.
Delta shares closed up 2.5 percent on the New York Stock Exchange on Wednesday following release of the voting results.
The flight attendant election is the first of several taking place at Delta that could determine if thousands of workers at the carrier will be represented by unions following the 2008 acquisition of Northwest Airlines.
Baggage handlers and customer service agents -- groups that collectively number 30,000 -- are currently voting on whether the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers will be their union.
"It's a huge defeat for the union," Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, said of the surprise result in one of the largest union-organizing drives in recent years. He added that the flight attendant result could be a bellwether for the other union elections.
UNION PLANS COMPLAINT
The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA union said it would seek a re-vote, charging that Delta management interfered in the balloting by tracking workers' computer voting and inundating staff with messages urging them how to vote.
"The amount of intimidation that these flight attendant experienced is unprecedented," said Patricia Friend, AFA President.
Yet Mathew Palmer -- a Delta flight attendant and founding member of No Way AFA, an activist group opposing the union -- said he felt Delta management was careful in its election communications.
"We at Delta work alongside and with our management and it has worked well," Palmer said. He said compensation for Delta workers was better than that of former Northwest employees.
Delta was largely non-union before it bought Northwest and incorporated thousands of unionized employees, including more than 7,000 flight attendants. The carrier's pilots are represented by the Air Line Pilots Association union.
The 20,000 flight attendants at the carrier began voting to resolve union representation in late September. Of the votes cast, 9,544 were against unionization while 9,216 supported joining a union, with 8,778 votes in favor of the Association of Flight Attendants.
The AFA lost two previous elections at Delta but was believed to have a better chance of winning this time following a landmark change in federal law in 2010 that allows outcomes to be based solely on votes cast.
That change, sought by a unit of the AFL-CIO labor federation, reversed the long-standing previous policy that required a majority of an entire work group to approve unionization, effectively counting those who did not cast ballots as "no" votes.
"We have said all along that we believe our direct relationship works well for our people and our company," Atlanta-based Delta said in a statement. The company added it plan to move as soon as it could, pending any AFA interference claims, to align pay, benefits and work rules of all flight attendants.
(Reporting by Karen Jacobs, with added reporting by John Crawley in Washington; Editing by Derek Caney, Gerald E. McCormick, Gary Hill)