For 26 years, Kip Hedges worked to build a reputation and a job history, loading and unloading planes for Northwest Airlines, then Delta. It was not glamorous work, but it was a good, honest job and it paid the bills.

It took less than 30 seconds for it to all go away, over a few seemingly innocuous words uttered to the reporter of a labor publication.

Free speech often has a steep price.

Hedges had been part of an effort to raise wages of airline industry workers, the cleaners, bag slingers and wheelchair pushers, to a minimum of $15 an hour. He was fired during a week of actions in which labor activists drew attention to a move to raise wages at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

In the long tradition of impeccable timing for corporate firings, Delta cut their diligent 61-year-old employee just weeks before Christmas. Oh, and he had been out of work on leave for a bad back, which he injured while doing the arduous job of schlepping bags and cargo.

So, what were the “disparaging” words that Hedges used about this employer?

“A lot of the Delta workers make under $15 an hour,” Hedges told the reporter for Workday Minnesota. “As a matter of fact, I would say probably close to half make under $15 an hour. So there’s a lot of them that understand how important this is. And a lot of the better-paid workers also understand that the bottom has to be raised otherwise the top is going to fall, as well.”

Words strong enough to take down an airline projected to make $4 billion this year, no doubt.

Delta explained their actions in a news release:

“Delta regrets any instance where a longtime employee is terminated. This includes upholding our core values of respect and honesty in any communications regarding Delta. Delta invites healthy, constructive discussion across all areas of its business.”

Sure, it does.

John Budd, who specializes in labor relations at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, thinks Delta’s action was designed to intimidate.

“First of all, shame on Delta,” said Budd. “In fact, by accusing Mr. Hedges of ‘disparaging remarks,’ Delta is admitting that low pay is a problem. But rather than engage in this discussion, it is suppressing the expression of alternative views.”

Even though he has been active previously in union issues and has always spoken out on labor issues, Hedges never saw his termination coming.

“I definitely did not want to get fired, and didn’t think I said anything that would get me fired,” Hedges said. “It’s sure tossed a lot of things up in the air in my life.”

He’s had to explain to his 16-year-old daughter, for example, that Christmas might be a little lean this year. There will also be no more free flights.

Baggage handlers like Hedges used to be protected under the International Association of Machinists, which lost a vote to represent them by a narrow margin a few years ago. Hedges had been an officer for that union and was used to speaking freely because he had federal protection. Yet, he said he was careful in his comments last week, and said the company has not told him that his facts were incorrect.

“I do understand that when you are out front on a union-organizing drive and a $15 minimum wage campaign, you do run a certain risk,” Hedges said.

After Hedges was fired, he appeared at a rally Friday at the airport, and he has been swamped with support from airport workers around the country. A petition to reinstate Hedges had nearly 1,200 signatures by Tuesday. A ramp workers organizing committee is raising money to support Hedges, and he said a friend even went so far as to offer to pay his mortgage.

“The outpouring of support has been so phenomenal that it almost makes it all worthwhile,” said Hedges. “In Minneapolis, at the airport, on the ramp, even the airport, vendors are coming up to me and saying, ‘Thanks for sticking up for me.’ I get choked up by something almost every day.”

On Tuesday, Hedges made an attempt to appeal the firing, but he was not optimistic.

“The way the Delta appeals process works, there’s not much hope of success,” said Hedges. “The people who fired me are the people who judge me.”

Transportation workers like Hedges are not protected by the National Labor Relations Act like private-sector workers, who can appeal mistreatment in the workplace. If Hedges loses his appeal, he plans to sue for wrongful termination in federal court.

“Unfortunately, legal recourse is notoriously slow, and in the meantime Delta has likely succeeded in chilling speech around this important issue as others will likely be hesitant to speak out,” said Budd. “More generally, the American public frequently overestimates the protections that workers have. This case is a vivid illustration that workers lack free-speech protections. Companies have been given free-speech protections, but not their workers. This needs to change.”

Intimidation “is certainly what they are trying to do,” said Hedges. “The positive thing is that ramp workers all over the country are going on a union authorization card push to show Delta their tactic is backfiring. I hope Delta will look back at some point and say they wished they had not done that.”


Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin