Delta merger challenged by union rule change. ATA files suit


Fresh on the heels of last week’s National Mediation Board decision to change the rules on counting votes in a union election, the US Air Transport Association said yesterday it is filing suit in the US District Court for the District of Columbia. ATA will seek a speedy review of the voting rule, which would greatly facilitate union representation in airlines.

Opponents have questioned the NMB procedures in setting its final 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," said the industry in the immediate aftermath of the announcement by the board. It also questioned whether the NMB had the legal authority to change the rules. Yesterday, 17-May-2010, ATA went further.

No justification for changing the rule: ATA

“ATA believes that the National Mediation Board failed to identify any material change in circumstances to support the new election procedure – a procedure that it last rejected only two years ago,” said the association. “The NMB decision to abandon an election procedure that the Supreme Court twice has upheld, which has allowed unions to effectively organize the rail and aviation industries, and which has served the public interest in avoiding disruptions to the vital national aviation and rail transportation systems, is both disappointing and puzzling. ATA looks forward to a quick resolution to this case, so that airlines and their employees can move forward together and more efficiently address their mutual goals. This new rule turns 75 years of history on its head without compelling justification.”

Airlines and railroads already five times higher union representation than national average

The quest to make unionisation easier, ironically, comes at a time when airlines and railroads enjoy much higher union representation amongst their 500,000 employees – about 63% compared to 12.3% overall union members in the nation, down from 20.1% in 1983, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The long-awaited final ruling once again suggests that unions have much more power in Washington under the Obama Administration.

The change of the 76-year-old rule, passed by the three-member Board, changes whose votes are counted in a union election and makes it easier for unions to win a representation since the outcome is based on a simple majority of those voting. Previously, the outcome was based a majority of the entire workforce, which meant that those who chose not to vote were counted as “no” votes.

The rule was announced by the NMB in these terms: "As part of its ongoing efforts to further the statutory goals of the Railway Labor Act, the National Mediation Board (NMB or Board) is amending its Railway Labor Act rules to provide that, in representation disputes, a majority of valid ballots cast will determine the craft or class representative.

This change to its election procedures will provide a more reliable measure/indicator of employee sentiment in representation disputes and provide employees with clear choices in representation matters.”

Could have biggest impact on Delta merger. SkyWest, JetBlue, Allegiant and Republic also affected

The change is expected to impact SkyWest Airlines which has managed to fight off several organising efforts by the Air Line Pilots Association in favour of its own in-house pilots union. Other airlines to be impacted include JetBlue, Allegiant and Republic Airways.

However, the largest, and most immediate impact will likely fall on Delta where unions are now trying to organise the 20,000 flight attendants as well as the 30,000 ground workers that resulted from the merger of largely non-union Delta with heavily unionized Northwest.

Once it merged with Northwest the battle was joined. Northwest’s ground workers, represented by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, and flight attendants worked to get the rule change so they would retain power under the combined carrier.

The last unionisation attempt at Delta, where currently only pilots are unionised, was in 2008 when only 5,200 of the approximately 13,000 flight attendants voted for representation by the Association of Flight Attendants.

But those who favour the rule change, said the old rule was undemocratic. They also pointed out that the change merely puts airlines on the same playing field as other industries. It is also perhaps ironic that, at a time when the airline industry is begging to be treated the same as other industries with respect to mergers, cross border investment and taxation, it wants to retain its special status in this instance.

Airline workers will now join railroad workers and other employees under rules governed by the National Labor Relations Act, which unlike the Railway Labor Act, calls for a simple majority versus the RLA’s majority of all workers. The NLRA governs most union workers.

New direction follows appointment of former Flight Attendant Union official to the NMB

The matter took on new urgency with the Obama Administration when it named former Association of Flight Attendant President Linda Puchula to the board. Last October, the AFL-CIO immediately requested the rule change and, with the shift in the balance of power, airlines mounted a battle to preserve the old rule.

Ms Puchula’s membership left Bush Appointee Elizabeth Dougherty in the minority, despite her effort to retain the status quo. She said the change was “an unprecedented departure for the NMB and represents the most dramatic policy shift in the history of the agency."

Unions last week hailed the NMB ruling which is to be published today in the Federal Register. The effective date would then be June 18, 30 days after publication.

Not if the ATA has its way.

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