Airlines Threaten Lawsuit After Labor Board Rules To Make Union Elections More Democratic

Today, the National Mediation Board (NMB), which oversees labor-management relations under the Railway Labor Act (RLA), issued a ruling making union elections more democratic. Before today, under the RLA, workers who did not vote in a union organizing campaign — including workers on furlough, military leave and extended medical leave — were counted as “no” votes. So in order to form a union, workers had to gain a majority of all workers, instead of a majority of voting members. It was as if people who did not vote in a Presidential campaign were recorded as voting for one party or the other.

The NMB’s rule-change — which it first sought comment on back in November — states that workers who do not vote in an election simply won’t be counted (just like in political campaigns). This would bring the RLA in line with the other major piece of legislation governing unionization, the National Labor Relations Act.

But airlines, which are governed by the RLA, like the higher bar for unionizing that the previous rule set. So they immediately announced that they will launch a lawsuit seeking to overturn the rule, according to the Air Transport Association, an industry trade group:

We continue to believe the National Mediation Board does not have legal authority to implement this rule, one that undoubtedly will lead to more labor discord. It is quite clear to us that the NMB was determined to proceed despite the proposed rule’s substantive and procedural flaws, leaving us no choice but to seek judicial review.

At its core, the airlines — including Delta, Jet Blue, and United — are arguing that workers who don’t vote in union elections should immediately be recorded as voting against the union. It’s an odd concept of democracy, if I’ve ever heard one.

But the reaction of the airlines is part and parcel of the corporate campaign to keep the bar for unionization high, even when the rules are antiquated or create uneven playing fields between companies. For instance, Federal Express (which, interestingly, has joined the airlines’ lawsuit against the NMB’s ruling) has been waging a campaign against a proposed change by Congress that would remove unionizing obstacles for that company’s drivers. The clear goal of this lobbying — and the airlines’ lawsuit — is to keep workers who want to unionize from actually following through and forming a union.

The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA said that the NMB’s ruling represents “a new era of democracy.” “For far too long, flight attendants and other aviation and railway employees have faced significant obstacles in their quest for collective bargaining rights,” it said. And the airlines are going to court to fight for keeping those obstacles in place.


Two Republican lawmakers — Rep. John Kline (R-MN) and Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) — also criticized the rule change today and said that they would try to stop it from being implemented.

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