Delta Airlines Crosses One Line Too Far in Union Busting

Friday 10 May 2019 by Bradley M. Kuhn

We create, develop, document and collaborate as users of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) from around the globe, usually by working remotely on the Internet. However, human beings have many millennia of evolution that makes us predisposed to communicate most effectively via in-person interaction. We don't just rely on the content of communication, but its manner of expression, the body language of the communicator, and thousands of different non-verbal cues and subtle communication mechanisms. In fact, I believe something that's quite radical for a software freedom activist to believe: meeting in person to discuss something is always better than some form of online communication. And this belief is why I attend so many FOSS events, and encourage (and work in my day job to support) programs and policies that financially assist others in FOSS to attend such events.

When I travel, Delta Airlines often works out to be the best option for my travel: they have many international flights from my home airport (PDX), including a daily one to AMS in Europe — and since many FOSS events are in Europe, this has worked out well.

Admittedly, most for-profit companies that I patronize regularly engage in some activity that I find abhorrent. One of the biggest challenges of modern middle-class life in an industrialized soceity is figuring out (absent becoming a Thoreau-inspired recluse) how to navigate one's comfort level with patronizing companies that engage in bad behaviors. We all have to pick our own boycotts and what vendors we're going to avoid.

I realize that all the commercial airlines are some of the worst environmental polluters in the world. I realize that they all hire union-busting law firms to help them mistreat their workers. But, Delta Airlines recent PR campaign to frighten their workers about unions was one dirty trick too far.

I know unions can be inconvenient for organizational leadership; I actually have been a manager of a workforce who unionized while I was an executive. I personally negotiated that union contract with staff. The process is admittedly annoying and complicated. But I fundamentally believe it's deeply necessary, because workers' rights to collectively organize and negotiate with their employers is a cornerstone of equality — not just in the USA but around the entire world.

Furthermore, the Delta posters are particularly offensive because they reach into the basest problematic instinct in humans that often becomes our downfall: the belief that one's own short-term personal convenience and comfort should be valued higher than the long-term good of our larger communityf. It's that instinct that causes us to litter, or to shun public transit and favor driving a car and/or calling a ride service.

We won't be perfect in our efforts to serve the greater good, and sometimes we're going to selfishly (say) buy a video game system with money that could go to a better cause. What's truly offensive, and downright nefarious here, is that Delta Airlines — surely in full knowledge of the worst parts of some human instincts — attempted to exploit that for their own profit and future ability to oppress their workforce.

As a regular Delta customer (both personally, and through my employer when they reimburse my travel), I had to decide how to respond to this act that's beyond the pale. I've decided on the following steps:

  • I've written the following statement via Delta's complaint form:

    I am a Diamond Medallion (since 2016) on Delta, and I've flown more than 975,000 miles on Delta since 2000. I am also a (admittedly small) shareholder in Delta myself (via my retirement savings accounts).

    I realize that it is common practice for your company (and indeed likely every other airline) to negotiate hard with unions to get the best deal for your company and its shareholders. However, taking the step to launch what appears to be a well-funded and planned PR campaign to convince your workers to reject the union and instead spend union dues funds on frivolous purchases instead is a despicable, nefarious strategy. Your fiduciary duty to your shareholders does not mandate the use of unethical and immoral strategies with your unionizing labor force — only that you negotiate in good faith to get the best deal with them for the company.

    I demand that Delta issue a public apology for the posters. Ideally, such an apology should include a statement by Delta indicating that you believe your workers have the right to unionize and should take seriously the counter-arguments put forward by the union in favor of union dues and each employee should decide for themselves what is right.

    I've already booked my primary travel through the rest of the year, so I cannot easily pivot away from Delta quickly. This gives you some time to do the right thing. If Delta does not apologize publicly for this incident by November 1st, 2019, I plan to begin avoiding Delta as a carrier and will seek a status match on another airline.

    I realize that this complaint email will likely primarily be read by labor, not by management. I thus also encourage you to do two things: (a) I hope you'll share this message, to the extent you are permitted under your employment agreement, with your coworkers. Know that there are Diamond Medallions out here in the Delta system who support your right to unionize. (b) I hope you escalate this matter up to management decision-makers so they know that regular customers are unhappy at their actions.

  • Given that I'm already booked on many non-refundable Delta flights in the coming months, I would like to make business-card-sized flyers that say something like: I'm a Delta frequent flyer & I support a unionizing workforce. and maybe on the other side: Delta should apologize for the posters. It would be great if these had some good graphics or otherwise be eye-catching in some way. The idea would be to give them out to travelers and leave them in seat pockets on flights for others to find. If anyone is interested in this project and would like to help, email me — I have no graphic design skills and would appreciate help.
  • I'm encouraging everyone to visit Delta's complaint form and complain about this. If you've flown Delta before with a frequent flyer account, make sure you're logged into that account when you fill out the form — I know from experience their system prioritizes how seriously they take the complaint based on your past travel.
  • I plan to keep my DAL stock shares until the next annual meeting, and (schedule-permitting), I plan to attend the annual meeting and attempt to speak about the issue (or at least give out the aforementioned business cards there). I'll also look in to whether shareholders can attend earnings calls to ask questions, so maybe I can do something of this nature before the next annual meeting.

Overall, there is one positive outcome of this for me personally: I am renewed in my appreciation for having spent most of my career working for charities. Charities in the software freedom community have our problems, but nearly everyone I've worked with at software freedom charities (including management) have always been staunchly pro-union. Workers have a right to negotiate on equal terms with their employers and be treated as equals to come to equitable arrangements about working conditions and workplace issues. Unions aren't perfect, but they are the only way to effectively do that when a workforce is larger than a few people.

Posted on Friday 10 May 2019 at 13:45 by Bradley M. Kuhn.

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Both previously and presently, I have been employed by and/or done work for various organizations that also have views on Free, Libre, and Open Source Software. As should be blatantly obvious, this is my website, not theirs, so please do not assume views and opinions here belong to any such organization. Since I do co-own with my wife, it may not be so obvious that these aren't her views and opinions, either.

— bkuhn

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Bradley M. Kuhn <>