Flight Attendants Sue Delta Over Pay Discrimination

Six flight attendants-five of whom reside in Minnesota-claim that Delta Air Lines discriminated against them in compensation and profit-sharing payouts.

A handful of flight attendants who were employed by Northwest Airlines, Inc., are suing their current employer-Delta Air Lines, Inc.-alleging that they have been discriminated against based on their prior union status.

The lawsuit was filed on Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Minnesota by six flight attendants-five of whom reside in Minnesota-who worked for Northwest and became Delta employees following the merger of the two airlines in 2008.

The suit comes less than one month after Delta announced that it would distribute $313 million in profit-sharing payouts-the largest such payment the Atlanta-based airline has ever doled out.

At the time, Delta spokeswoman Leslie Parker told Twin Cities Business that many workers would receive a bonus of 6.5 percent of their 2010 earnings, while those who remain under union contracts from before the merger would get 3.2 percent of their earnings.

The suit claims that the difference in pay represents discrimination and is based solely on the attendants' prior union status-which they claim is no longer their bargaining representative and should therefore not come into play.

Prior to the merger of the two airlines, Northwest flight attendants were represented by the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA), while Delta flight attendants were not unionized.

Following the merger, the National Mediation Board (NMB) conducted an election to determine the union status of the flight attendants for the merged company. The flight attendants voted against union representation by a narrow margin, in effect eliminating the union status of pre-merger Northwest attendants.

But the AFA soon after filed a motion with the NMB to look into whether Delta had interfered with the election. That motion is still pending with the NMB.

Since the election, Delta has been selective about which provisions of the AFA contract it honors, according to the lawsuit. For example, Delta allegedly is no longer processing grievances filed by pre-merger Northwest attendants.

Delta has, however, paid pre-merger Northwest attendants based on their AFA contract that was in place prior to the election-and those attendants receive lower wages and got a smaller share of the profit-sharing payouts as a result. According to the AFA, Delta paid out the smaller profit-sharing checks to more than 7,500 pre-merger Northwest flight attendants.

And according to the suit, Delta intends to continue paying its employees this way until the AFA drops its NMB motion.

Delta maintains that it is simply following the proper NMB regulations. According to company spokeswoman Gina Laughlin, the AFA offered to drop one interference allegation in exchange for Delta aligning profit-sharing payments. The airline responded by telling the AFA to drop all of their “unfounded interference allegations,” and Delta would in turn equalize the benefits and compensation of the two groups.

“Until representation is fully resolved, NMB rules require that we continue to administer two separate sets of pay, benefits, and work rules,” Laughlin wrote in an e-mail on Thursday.

Laughlin also said that items like grievances are treated differently than compensation and benefits under NMB rules, and the company's actions are appropriate.

“The AFA continues to disrespect our flight attendants and the integrity of the voting process by refusing to accept the decision of the majority of voters who clearly said they do not want AFA representation,” Laughlin wrote. “It's time for the AFA to stop placing its own interests above the interests of our flight attendants.”

The lawsuit contends that Delta has “no legitimate business reason” for not aligning pay-rather, it's an attempt to convince flight attendants that the union is to blame for the unequal pay.

“Delta is punishing Northwest flight attendants for their long history of collective bargaining,” Veda Shook, AFA International president, said in a statement. “Delta management's actions are shameful and undemocratic. Our union supports all flight attendants and will not rest until this mean-spirited retaliation comes to an end and all Delta flight attendants receive a fair share of the profit that their accomplishments helped to achieve.”

The suit seeks an order requiring Delta to align the compensation for its flight attendants and disregard pre-merger union status, as well as an order stopping Delta from making payments dependent upon AFA's withdrawal of its NMB charge.

The pre-merger Northwest flight attendants are also seeking back pay to compensate for their lower wages and the profit-sharing payments received by their nonunion counterparts.

Prior to the merger, Northwest was based in Eagan. Delta now serves more than 160 million customers each year, and it maintains a significant presence at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP), from which it operates more than 500 daily departures to 136 destinations worldwide.