Delta Air Lines flight attendants' attempt to unionize failed, they said Wednesday, because not enough employees participated in the vote.

Only about 40 percent of the 13,380 eligible flight attendants voted. The federal agency that oversees union elections, the National Mediation Board, requires 50 percent of the flight attendants, plus one vote, for an election to count, said Paul Tanner, a Salt Lake City-based Delta flight attendant who has been organizing workers.

Tanner believes employee apathy and an aggressive campaign by Delta management against unionization played into the low voter participation. While Tanner is disappointed the bid failed, he and other activists are looking forward to the pending merger of Delta and Northwest Airlines. Northwest's 8,000 flight attendants are unionized, and a new election will determine if the flight attendants at the new airline will have union representation.

In a statement released Wednesday from Delta's headquarters in Atlanta, the airline's management said the 60 percent of flight attendants who didn't vote are employees who are against unionizing.

"We're pleased that Delta's flight attendants clearly believe that our unique culture and direct relationship are worth preserving," Delta Chief Executive Officer Richard Anderson said. "Delta continues to be the best advocate for its people, and our employees recognize the benefits of working together to enhance their careers and drive successful results for themselves and our company."

Tanner and other organizers wanted to be represented by the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, and spent the last two years campaigning for the cause. More than 55,000 flight attendants at 20 airlines are members of the AFA-CWA. The AFA is part of the 700,000-member Communications Workers of America.

The Delta attendants' unionization drive this spring was their second failed attempt to unionize. The first election was in 2001, shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and only 29 percent of flight attendants voted.

Each time the issue has been put on the ballot, more people have favored it, and the Association of Flight Attendants believes the next vote will be successful, said Corey Caldwell, spokeswoman for the Washington D.C.-based union.

Since announcing the intention to merge April 14, Delta and Northwest have been awaiting regulatory approval for the deal. When the National Mediation Board determines Delta and Northwest are acting as a "single transportation system," another election will be held over flight attendant representation.

"It would be like this election all over again," Caldwell said. "It would ask Delta as well as Northwest flight attendants if they would like to be members of the Association of Flight Attendants. It's a chance for the combined work group to vote for representation."

That election is expected to happen in early 2009.

"I think Northwest flight attendants will look very closely at this election and are anxious to understand what we do here, how we interact with employees," said Joanne Smith, Delta's senior vice president of in-flight service and global product development.

The AFA said in a news release that Northwest flight attendants "face a very real threat to our collective bargaining rights."

"Delta is now set for what could be an unprecedented remaking of the entire airline industry," the union said. The AFA also said Delta and Northwest flight attendant representatives will meet at the AFA's offices for a joint committee session to develop a framework to integrate flight attendant groups and respond to the merger.

Tanner, who lives in Bountiful, fears that the new airline, which will be called Delta, will use "union-busting" tactics to keep the flight attendants from organizing. For the most recent vote, Tanner said, Delta distributed fliers and DVDs to employees to pressure them from voting in favor of unionization.

Delta spokesman Anthony Black said in an e-mail that the company supports employees' right to vote.

"We also feel it's important that they have the facts in order to make an informed decision," he said. "Because they are such a mobile workforce, it's important that we provide them with the information medium that best fits their lifestyles."

Pilots remain the only major work group at Delta to be members of a union.

Northwest and Delta pilots plan to present a proposed joint contract to Delta management on Thursday, according to a message from the Northwest pilots union. The message didn't address the stickiest issue, seniority, but pilots have said they expect that to be worked out later.

"We continue our belief that progress toward a joint contract can be achieved in an expedited fashion," the message said.


Contributing: Associated Press; Bloomberg News; Cox News Service.

E-mail: [email protected]