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July 27, 2010

The Power of Two-Way Communication; A Flight Attendant Union at Delta Air Lines?

Delta Air Lines flight attendants, from the merged Northwest Airlines (NWA) and Delta Air Lines (DAL), will soon be voting on whether they want to have a union represent them to Delta management. If the union that currently represents the former NWA flight attendants, the Association of Flight Attendants-Communication Workers of America (AFA-CWA), wins the election, they will also represent the former Delta flight attendants, who have been unrepresented in Delta's 82 year history. More importantly, a win in the upcoming election would bring union representation to a sizeable labor group at the world's largest airline, which traditionally has been mostly union free. Delta's status as a union free carrier for most of its work groups is an anomaly in the heavily organized airline industry.

The stakes are high for AFA-CWA and the impact of the election's outcome could be significant for the American union movement, which has been in decline in this country for the past twenty-five years.

While not the case in some contemporary unions, historically union leaders rise from the membership ranks or from within an unorganized workplace (think Norma Rae) to unify the diverse voices of the workgroup into one collective voice to the management or ownership of a company. Typically the need for unions comes from companies' inability or unwillingness to communicate with and fairly compensate their employees. Thus, union leaders often fight for respect and value depending on what that means to their membership as a whole. Recall that Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed while supporting AFSCME black union workers who held picket signs that simply and powerfully read, "I AM A MAN."

Case Background
For the DAL flight attendant group as a whole, the concerns as employees are not much different. They want respect from the company (being heard and part of the organization's decision-making process) and action by the company taken on that feedback, which is value for their work (in their agreements with their employer).
NWA management exceeded at technological advances and legal acumen, but truly missed out on understanding people and their need for involvement. The NWA corporate culture included an enormous disrespect for employees (and customers), including ignoring employee feedback and breaking agreements; legally, but some would question whether ethically. In 2006 NWA Human Resources sent soon to be laid-off NWA employees an information sheet that actually suggested the employees could rummage through garbage cans to save money.

DAL's corporate culture, on the other hand, has focused on employees as "family;" for example, on a DAL blog the company's history is entitled: "We Love to Fly: 80 Year Family Tree." This does not mean that there have not been employee differences with the company; just that DAL management has recognized employee's need for inclusion.

These organizational tactics are the reasons why unions have repeatedly been rebuffed by Delta employees and why NWA employees want unions. At NWA, even though the AFA-CWA has not sincerely involved or listened to their members; and even though AFA-CWA has been unsuccessful at the negotiations and grievance tables, flight attendants feel the need for a Union (capital U) to "fight" the company for "respect," among other things. Because they have known nothing else, it is also the reason why NWA flight attendants do not trust their new employer, Delta Airlines, and have the attitude of  "respect is earned" or "show me the money." Speaking of which...


Delta flight attendants have historically been paid higher than others in the industry. The belief is that this is so that unions cannot organize and it is accurate when one looks at the reasoning to have a union (respect through compensation).

NWA flight attendants were once at the higher end of the industry pay scale, but that eroded with mid-contract concessions in the 1990s and contract cuts via the bankruptcy process in 2005-2007. Although former NWA flight attendants potentially can earn more than they currently do, by being brought on par with their non-union DAL colleagues, they have not seen proof that Delta will deliver once their union disappears. Doing so would require a significant paradigm shift from the only status quo that they currently know.
Since respect is not as easily measured as value, which can be quickly accessed through contracts or terms of employment, it is important for organizations who wish to have the confidence of stakeholders, to also have a clear idea of the opinions of said groups. As such, the first step AFA-CWA and DAL should be taking is to understand what their respective stakeholders, here employees or potential union members, want. To do this, two-way communication vehicles need to be in place with adequate measurements, so that recommendations can be made for communication strategies.

There are many ways to elicit feedback including: focus groups, community forums, surveys, social media sites, and on so on. It is a matter of committing resources in order to have the most accurate information with which to work.

All two-way communication avenues depend on a willingness to deploy resources, but the return on investment is, well, priceless:
  • Shareholder beliefs that shared decision-making has occurred and is valued results in greater buy-in and more successful outcomes
  • Collection of stakeholder information/resources allows for better communication programs and more efficient future resource investments
  • Outcomes can be more accurately (but not fully) projected
Just as unions find it easier to gain a foothold at companies who fail to provide effective communication vehicles with their employees and to demonstrate that they value and respect their employees through fair compensation, so too can union members turn against a union leadership that fails to demonstrate that it values its members through effective two-way communication and providing a fair return on the investment of dues dollars. 


The variables that matter when workers vote for unions are the same that matter for any organization's stakeholders: relationships (with the organization - here union and company) and stakeholder beliefs (about their involvement in organizational outcomes). Both can be measured, and should be, but demand two-way communication avenues that allow for feedback such as, surveys, interviews, online dialogue, etc., which provide for formal information gathering.

The following are the six measurements, by Hon and Grunig (for more details go to that organizations should know the mind's of their stakeholders by and can be queried via any two-way communication device:

  1. Control Mutuality
  2. Trust
    • Integrity
    • dependability
    • competence
  3. Satisfaction
  4. Commitment
    • Continuance
    • Affective
  5. Exchange Relationship
  6. Communal Relationship
Communication beliefs, for example, stakeholder attitude, intention and self-efficacy to get involved in organizational two-way communication are key to understanding whether employees/member can and want to be involved. Often this is based on their relationship to organization, but not always. The following are a few questions that can be asked:
  • Do stakeholders believe their input does/will matter?
  • Do stakeholders have the ability (self-efficacy) to get involved in organizational communication?
Research Results
In the interest of full disclosure, I must tell you that I was once a Northwest flight attendant and a union representative for two of the unions that represented the Northwest Airlines flight attendants, including AFA-CWA. More recently, I was a graduate student. My thesis included a case study specifically about Northwest flight attendant union representation and a survey about the correlation of union members' relationship with their union to their engagement in communications with the union. Since my M.A. was in Strategic Communication, my focus was on the importance of two-way communication in the survival of unions, pretty appropriate for the situation at Delta Air Lines.

The most important and surprising conclusions were:

From the Case Study:
  1. Members who were disillusioned with the union, but who were also activists, if offered a "seat at the table" with the union, would take it, but only if the invitation was sincere and timely, and if they perceived a productive outcome. These activists had solutions to the union's communication problems (see #2), but did not feel they had been or were sincerely invited to participate in the union's decision-making process or felt ignored.
  2. AFA-CWA did not have two-way communication avenues in place (even though union leaders believed they had) and, as a result, members believed that they had a weak relationship with AFA-CWA. 
If one were to guess the election results from the case study, it would be that the union would fail; however, the survey offered another view of union members' perspectives...

From the Survey:
  1. Most of the union members who took the survey considered themselves union activists and believed they had the self-efficacy to get involved in their union communications, but fewer believed they could affect union decision-making outcomes.
  2. Union members who filled out the survey felt able to communicate with their union, but did not feel that their opinions were reflected in union communication or negotiations.
  3. Even if all relationship indicators were weak - and they were in the case of AFA-CWA members - the commitment of union members to the philosophy of union was higher than the other measurements.
Union activists who were actively involved in union communication still had weak relationships with their unions and didn't believe they could impact their unions, but were still committed to their unions! So, no matter the deterioration of the relationship to union, including competency, trust, collaboration, etc., union members were still loyal to union.

The value/ideal of union mattered more to union members than their relationship with their own union! (This is not so far fetched - think of people who stay committed to marriage during tough times in the relationship, because they are committed to the long-term outcome or the personal value of marriage.)

Importantly the majority of those who took the survey considered themselves activists, which could skew the results; however, union activists are also typically opinion leaders and their feedback should be noted with interest.

The Future


A union communication strategist could take the results from the case study and survey and put out communications that focused on the importance of Union, with a capital U, the history of unions and the us-them differences between workers and management that have plagued industries like the airline industry. They would also not underscore the other relationship indicators such as competence and trust. In my opinion, this is exactly what AFA-CWA has successfully done with their recent campaign to try to organize the Delta flight attendants.

In addition, I believe AFA-CWA has run an esoteric campaign that has not attempted to reflect that they were accurately not representing their members well, particularly in the defense or promotion of flight attendants' contracts. (AFA-CWA currently has some of the lowest paid contracts in the industry.) The AFA-CWA campaign has instead focused on affecting the beliefs of the pre-merger Delta and Northwest flight attendant groups, rather than focusing on facts, figures and AFA's own record.

The apparent communication strategy of AFA-CWA, reveals that they have executed surveys, but have ignored components of them. The questions remaining are: whether the joint DAL flight attendant group will place the ideal of union over respect (being heard) and value (pay) as the participants did and, second, if the union wins, how long union members will go with less respect and value without eventually questioning their union ideal and "divorcing" themselves from union.

DAL Management
A management communication strategist would take the case study and survey information and emphasize that they want a strong and direct relationship with their employees offering two-way communication avenues and that the union does not know what the flight attendants want because union leadership is simply not listening to the membership. Again in my opinion, this is exactly what Delta management has successfully done.

They are also emphasizing that AFA-CWA flight attendants have lower pay than DAL flight attendants and that union does not guarantee value. However, DAL management currently sent out a letter to flight attendants telling them how to vote in the election, showing that the company does not understand that flight attendants do not like be told how to vote and see such communication as paternalistic and disrespectful. DAL management too is not hearing the entire message offered by the flight attendants:

They want respect and value from the company and will vote in a union if they don't believe they will get it without representation.

So, who is winning?

The election outcome may come down to beliefs and the numbers of believers - not necessarily the facts as they exist. Sound familiar?

The numbers of former NWA flight attendants who believe they need a union for respect and value is probably considerable and the opposite is true for DAL flight attendants. Why? Past performance usually predicts future performance. Although the company has changed, the DAL CEO, some board members and upper management, were once at NWA during some of the most demeaning times. Only a long-term strategy, that sincerely involves and reflects employee opinion, can change the NWA flight attendants minds. On the other hand, former DAL flight attendants see AFA-CWA's record and realize were they to vote in the union, they could potentially earn less.

Both flight attendant groups will vote based on what they know. Since there are fewer NWA flight attendants than DAL flight attendants, do the numbers and you'll figure out who will win.

The us/them focus of management and union will not work as the Internet community-building environment moves forward. There is a reason why the word "collaboration" is being used more often in organizations, for and non-profit; people have access to a lot more information and can become involved in and contribute to far-reaching communities. The expectation to be a part of the process, whether that's in two-way communication, decision-making or otherwise, has increased with people's access to information.

Authentic respect and real value can be felt and measured. Telling people they are "family" or "You are the U in Union" and then not involving them in two-way communication that affects organization decision-making or their opinions are not reflected in the direction of the organization's actions (such as pay), trust for the organization will diminish over time. With our access to information, there is no reason to believe in the Boogie Man's spin on the truth.

Both AFA-CWA and DAL management have archaic one-way communication strategies and minimal two-way communication avenues and they both ignore ALL of the feedback. This is a short-term strategy that will bear minimal success. The entire basis of two-way communication is to build long-term relationships and, as previously stated, utilize the resources of their stakeholders.

My recommendation is that both organizations focus on sincere two-way communication strategies and are open to the possibility that the feedback (from all of their stakeholders) may affect organizational strategy and/or brand, including creating value for their employees/members. The return on investment will be focused and relevant messaging which is instrumental in building long-term relationships and creating organizational evangelists within and outside of the organizations, who will help create growth and value for the organizations.

And since my ultimate hope is that my former colleagues and their new company have success, I hope that both union and company begin to understand that in the new global environment dialogue is not an option, it's THE way of doing business.


One more little factoid from the survey that was not mentioned in my thesis, but was fascinating:

Mid-survey, when TWU 556 union members (from Southwest Airlines) joined the survey, all relationship measurements increased to a higher value indicating Southwest flight attendants have strong relationships with their union. The survey revealed that unions like TWU foster strong and positive relationships with their members by demonstrating that they value their members and by providing avenues for two-way communications between the organization leadership and that membership. Just like companies that are able to more successfully leverage communications to improve employee relationships, so too can good unions foster positive relationships with their members.

They (Southwest flight attendants) are also the highest paid in the industry ... AND Southwest Airlines has been the most consistently profitable airline in the industry.

This is a Facebook quote from Thom McDaniel, TWU 556 president, in relation to a recent article that addressed the NWA and DAL corporate cultures and their impact on customer service, "Just some food for thought - whouda thunk that good labor relations resulted in good customer service - oh yea - SWA!"

Talk about a collaborative and financially successful model.

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