Will unionizing change Delta's corporate culture?

A worker helps guide a Delta Air Lines plane.

TEXT OF STORY

JEREMY HOBSON: Today, 20,000 flight attendants with Delta Airlines finish voting on whether to unionize. The merger of Delta and Northwest Airlines has brought Delta's non-union employees together with Northwest's mostly unionized workforce.

Jim Burress has more from WABE in Atlanta.


Jim Burress: Between the radio and TV commercials, like this one from a major union...

Commercial: We need those workers to keep their jobs.

...you'd think this union vote was really a national referendum. If the majority votes yes, this could be first time in its 80-plus-year history that people other than Delta executives determine wages and benefits.

Gina Laughlin: We don't believe that the outcome of these representation elections would materially change our cost projections.

That's Delta spokeswoman Gina Laughlin. She says in the 2008 merger with Northwest, Delta already factored in what a unionized workforce would cost the airline's bottom line. Delta is "hush-hush" on those figures, but Laughlin says this issue isn't so much about cash.

Laughlin: This is about culture, not costs.

Laughlin says that the company already has an open door policy where managers and workers have no trouble negotiating wages and benefits.

Dan Petree heads the business college at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida. He agrees corporate culture is important, but says unionizing Delta workers doesn't have to change that culture. That depends on Delta.

Dan Petree: The onus is really on management to work tirelessly to identify areas where they and their workers can agree, and build a positive relationship, whether there's a union involved or not.

Petree says wages don't play as big a role in the industry's bottom line as airplane capacity and one more thing -- customer satisfaction.

Petree: I think at the end of the day what really matters is how do the workers interact with their customers, because that's what really builds your reputation.

So, a merger that two years ago began with the question, which soda do we choose to serve -- "Coke or Pepsi?" concludes with which status do workers choose, "Union or Non?"

In Atlanta, I'm Jim Burress for Marketplace.

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