Another Union Payback: Obama Agency Makes it Easier to Unionize Airline and Railroad employees

This takes a little background explanation:

The National Mediation Board (NMB) is a federal agency much like the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in that it governs labor relations in the private sector.  However, the NMB is strictly for the airline and railroad industries.  While the vast majority of private sector employers fall under the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, as amended ( which is administered and enforced by the NLRB), the airline and railroad industries fall under the 1926 Railway Labor Act (which is administered and enforced by the NMB).

As such, while the NMB is similar to the NLRB in that it is “independent,” due to the ability of unions to affect interstate commerce in airline or railroad labor disputes, there are some key differences between how both laws are administered.  One of those key differences is how a union gets its tentacles into a company.

Under the NLRA, unions can target an individual site (or even a group within a particular workforce) to form a bargaining unit.   In other words, ABC Company can have one facility unionized and, across town, have a facility that is union-free.

However, the RLA is different.  Under the RLA, bargaining units are known as the craft and class and must be unionized across an entire airline or railroad.  So, for example, an airline’s passenger service agents in Los Angeles could not be unionized without the passenger service agents being unionized in New York as well.

Up until today, there were also differences in how unions got voted into companies.

The NLRB’s long-standing practice has been a simple majority (50%+1) of those in a bargaining unit who actually vote must vote for unionization in order for a union to become the bargaining agent over the entire bargaining unit.  [For example: If, out of 100 employees, only 20 people vote and 11 vote for unionization, then all 100 are unionized.]

For the last 75 years, if a union targeted a craft and class at an airline or railroad and an election was schedule, in order to win, the union had to have at least 50% participation in the election.  There were no “No Union” votes.  If any eligible employee participated in the election (even if he or she wrote in ‘Shrek’ as their bargaining agent), that vote counted toward unionization.  Given that most airlines and railroads are either regional or national in scope, unions sometimes had a hard time covering all of the territory to ensure that they would get enough participation in the election process to get past the 50% threshold…That is, until today.

In a major victory for organized labor, unions will have an easier time signing up airline and railroad workers after the Obama administration Monday changed a 76-year-old rule on union elections.

The change is the most significant so far in a string of White House moves designed to boost unions, which are struggling to reverse years of decline in membership.

The new rule, announced by the three-member National Mediation Board, would recognize a union if a simple majority of workers who cast ballots approve organizing. The previous rule required a majority of the entire work force to favor unionizing. That meant workers choosing not to vote at all were effectively counted as “no” votes.

Airlines that fought the change say it will lead to more labor disputes that could disrupt commerce and increase delays in an industry already reeling from recession, higher fuel costs and stepped-up security measures.

The most immediate impact of the change would be at Delta Air Lines Inc., where unions are trying to organize about 20,000 flight attendants. Unions are also expected to target workers at smaller carriers, including Allegiant Air, JetBlue Airways, Republic Airways and SkyWest.

“We applaud the NMB for taking this historic and courageous step to bring democracy to union elections,” said Patricia Friend, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA.

But the Air Transport Association, which represents most major airlines, is expected to file a lawsuit challenging the new rule.

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,” the industry group said in a statement.

The rule will take effect 30 days after publication Tuesday in the Federal Register. The flight attendants’ union said it would seek a representation election at Delta soon afterward. [Emphasis added.]

For those who may wonder why this rule change from majority of eligible votes cast to one of simple majority of votes cast is important, consider this:

If an airline has 5,000 employees in a craft and class and 2,000 of them work in hub cities like New York and Los Angeles, but the other 3,000 work in small regional airports, a union can easily concentrate its resources on the hub cities, ignore or capture just enough support at the regionals to ensure enough voters turn out to vote (voting is actually done via telephone or through mail ballot) and those who don’t vote will become unionized.  If only 2,000 (out of 5,000) vote and 1,001 votes to unionize, all 5,000 become unionized.  It’s much easier and cheaper for the unions this way.

Note: For those employees who live in Right-to-Work states who think: Well, so what if those people in New York and California unionize, it won’t cost me anything.  That is not true either. Under the Railway Labor Act, there is no recognition of state Right-to-Work laws. This means that people who live in the 22 states with Right-to-Work laws, but work for an airline (or railroad), can be required to pay a union as a condition of employment. As in the example above, if 1,001 (out of 5,000) vote to become unionized, all 5,000 could be required to pay the union as a condition of employment.

Since January 20, 2009, President Obama’s union backers have been quietly getting their return on investment.  The NMB’s issuing of the new rule is just the latest example.


“I bring reason to your ears, and, in language as plain as ABC, hold up truth to your eyes.”Thomas Paine, December 23, 1776

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