A Delta Air Lines flight attendant was fired in October after the airline objected to posts she’d made on her personal Facebook account, including one in which she called out a man who had been trolling her.
Kiersten Bak, 26, told BuzzFeed News she regularly receives harassment on Facebook because of the company she runs, a cheeky feminist merchandise site called “That Fucking Feminist.” The products, sold on a Shopify website, are automatically posted on Facebook Marketplace, which links her personal page as the seller.
On Aug. 29, Bak, fed up with the trolls, shared one of these messages on her Facebook account. A man she did not know had sent her an unprompted message that read, “You are one dumb woman.”
“Imagine having the ego of a white man in America 🥺 🥺,” Bak captioned the screenshot. “(no idea who this guy is. just some random snowflake who messaged me and immediately blocked me so I couldn’t respond 😂).”
She was subsequently called in for a meeting with superiors, suspended, and ultimately fired on Oct. 7, following a nearly monthlong investigation. Bak said managers criticized her social media posts and questioned her on whether she, a white woman, was “racist” toward white men.
Delta indicated to Bak that it had been alerted to her Facebook page — where she did not list the airline as her employer but was wearing the company’s uniform in her profile picture — by one of the people who had harassed her.
“In our phone conversation you stated that you were not trying to engage in victim blaming,” reads a termination letter seen by BuzzFeed News, “but you stated that you receive 10 to 15 messages daily from individuals you do not know, similar to the message from the individual who complained to Delta about your posts, because they disagree with your beliefs expressed on social media.”
Bak called the company hypocritical, citing its public commitment to diversity and stamping out racial injustice. In July, following nationwide protests over the police killings of George Floyd and other Black Americans, Delta CEO Ed Bastian vowed to add more Black members to the company’s board. In September, the airline made headlines when it surprised a Black passenger who was being harassed by a racist seatmate with an upgraded seat on her return flight and a goody bag, complete with a Delta-branded “Black Lives Matter” pin.
“It just proves what I’ve said all along is completely true,” Bak told BuzzFeed News of the company’s decision to fire her. “When they were presented with an upset white guy who harassed me, they picked his side and not the side of their employee who did nothing wrong.”
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, a spokesperson for Delta denied Bak’s story of her firing but would not provide evidence or any further details.
“While personnel issues are considered private between Delta and its employees, the circumstances described by our former employee are not an accurate or complete explanation of the company’s termination decision,” the spokesperson said. “Delta is a values-led company and our employees know and understand that they are representatives of our brand at work and through their conduct in social media and other public forums. When Delta employees intermix Delta’s brand with conduct or content that does not reflect our values of professionalism, inclusion and respect, that conduct can result in discipline or termination.”
Bak became a Delta flight attendant in March after completing the rigorous eight-week training program. The job was perfect for her, she said, because the flexible hours meant she could keep working on her small business selling custom T-shirts from her home in Saline, Michigan.
In July, Bak rebranded her business as That Fucking Feminist, where she sells products that include “Suburban Housewives for Biden” T-shirts, Ruth Bader Ginsburg prayer candles, and masks emblazoned with “Just Put Your Damn Mask On, Karen.” She also sells Black Lives Matter T-shirts, donating all the proceeds from these items to Black Lives Matter and similar organizations.
The following month, tired of the racist and sexist vitriol flooding her inbox over her progressive merchandise, Bak decided to turn the harassment into something positive: a little project she dubbed “Petty With a Purpose.”
“For every message I got, I would make a donation,” Bak said. “So, if they messaged me something about Black Lives Matter, I would donate to Black Lives Matter in their honor and send them a screenshot with a receipt, saying, ‘Thank you so much for your message! For every angry message I receive, I make a donation to [a charity].’ Then I’d block them and not converse any further.” As part of this, Bak would post screenshots of the interactions on her business’s Facebook page.
Between T-shirt sales and Petty With a Purpose, Bak has donated more than $8,000 to Black Lives Matter, Planned Parenthood, the Biden campaign, and several progressive organizations.
On Sept. 10, Bak said, she received a call from her base manager, informing her that an investigation had been opened into her social media activity. As directed, Bak removed ties to Delta from her Facebook and made the page significantly more private.
She said she then headed to a two-hour disciplinary hearing with two other base managers. “I went in that day, and they had about 10 pages of blown-up screenshots from my Facebook page,” Bak said. “And they just kind of questioned me on all of them.”
The post they seemed most bothered by, Bak said, was the screenshot of the man who’d called her “one dumb woman,” with her commentary about the “ego of a white man in America,” which she had posted to her personal Facebook page, rather than that of her business.
“They asked me, ‘Do you think this about all white men?’” Bak recalled. “I did everything to not laugh. I was respectful, and I said, ‘Well, my dad is a pretty nice guy. No, of course I do not think this about all white men in America — but when you get 10 messages a day … only from white men named Chris or Brian or Todd, yes, I’m going to have this opinion about white men in America.’”
The managers seemed to take particular issue with her use of the word “snowflake,” Bak said, and she spent about half an hour explaining how it is a term the far right uses to mock liberals as sensitive, and that in her comment she was flipping the term back on her harasser.
“[One base manager] said, ‘Is it racially charged?’ And I said, ‘no!’ I think she thought I was being racist because he was white, and snowflakes are white,” Bak said. “It seemed as if they maybe thought I was being racist towards this guy, but, [speaking] as a white person, you can’t be racist towards a white person.”
They also questioned her for a photo she shared of anti-Trump cookies her friend had decorated. Two of them depicted President Donald Trump as a pig and said “Make AmeriKKKa Great Again” in royal icing. The other two were decorated to look like umbrellas and read “Super Callous Fragile Racist Sexist Nazi POTUS.”
“They said, ‘What’s wrong with these cookies?’ And I said, ‘Well, nothing,’” Bak said. “She said, ‘How about the KKK bit?’ And I was like, I’m not saying, like, go join the KKK! … She pointed to the KKK bit, as if insinuating I was promoting the KKK. … These were anti-KKK cookies!”
Bak said another post they highlighted was a photo of her in uniform where her cardigan was unbuttoned, which is against the company’s dress code. But she said she had taken the photo after a flight and strictly followed uniform regulations while working.
In the meeting, Bak said, she was questioned on whether she’d ever used swear words or said anything political to a customer on board a flight. She said she did not and would not.
“I said, ‘I’m a very outspoken person, but I know the time and place for it,’” she said. “They also questioned my vocabulary since it says ‘fuck’ all over my page, and I said, ‘No, I do not swear on planes while I’m working; I’m a respectable human being.’”
Bak’s termination letter confirmed Bak was fired for violating the Delta social media policy by posting what it called “insensitive and offensive posts.”
In the letter, Delta said Bak was not fired based on her “personal beliefs” but for the way she shared them on social media.
“You stated your belief that your messages, and the messages Delta has indicated in support of Black Lives Matter, equality and social justice are the same, but you believe that you have been terminated for expressing such beliefs,” the letter states. “Ms. Bak, your termination was not based on your personal beliefs. Your termination was based on your violation of Delta’s Social Media Policy and the fact that the way you communicated your messages does not align with Delta Values and because you associated yourself with Delta when making the offensive comments.”
A copy of Delta’s employee social media policy shows the company does not prevent employees from posting political opinions online, but it does prohibit “using hateful, racist or other discriminatory language or images, advocating violent or illegal acts, participating in hate groups or shaming others.”
This policy has come under criticism in the past. In 2018, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) put out a letter calling the policy language too broad, and argued that it could stifle workers’ rights to speak openly without the risk of discipline.
The social media policy garnered publicity and controversy in June, when longtime flight attendant Kevin Lee Jennings — who was well known for her opposition to unionizing and beloved by Delta management — either left or was fired as a result of her tweets deriding the Black Lives Matter movement. Following her exit, a Delta spokesperson told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the company has “zero tolerance for racism, bigotry, and hateful acts” and that Jennings “no longer works at Delta.”
Delta is the only major airline whose flight attendants do not have a union, though not for lack of trying. Both IAM and the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA) have spent years trying to organize the flight attendants of Delta. In November 2019, nearly a decade after the last union attempt narrowly failed, AFA-CWA announced it was relaunching a campaign to unionize Delta. But since they do not currently have a union contract, Delta flight attendants are considered at-will employees and just cause is not required to fire them.
Taylor Garland, a spokesperson for AFA-CWA, told BuzzFeed News having “fair and transparent due process” during disciplinary action is one of the main reasons so many Delta employees want a union.
“Flight attendants should have a union representative on their side to ensure management does not apply subjective discipline without a process to fully consider the facts,” Garland said.