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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Feb 8, 2012, 10:22 am

CWA President Larry Cohen Is Pissed at Senate Democrats

BY Mike Elk

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Tuesday, Senate Democrats averted another Federal Aviation Administration shutdown by passing a "compromise" funding bill that will fund the agency through 2014 and modernizes the country's air traffic control system. The FAA partially shutdown last summer when negotiations over the bill delayed its passage.

It passed 75 to 20—and has incensed union leaders, who condemn its provisions making it harder to organize workers in the airline and rail industries.

On the surface, the compromise bill passed by Senate Democrats doesn't appear to hurt union organizing efforts since it requires 50 percent of airline or railway workers to  sign a petition for a union election, instead of the current 35 percent. Many union organizers often file for elections when 65-70 percent of workers have called for an election, in order to ensure victory.

But here's the catch: The bill would require organizers to gather signatures from 50 percent of all employees in a potential bargaining unit, including those who have been laid off during the past 10 years. In other words, it redefines the word "employee," raising the threshhold pro-union workers must reach if they want to hold a unionization election.

Watch Communication Workers of America President Larry Cohen's fiery remarks above. 

“When we said to the leadership, 'Why can’t we insert at least some provisions of Employee Free Choice Act into a spending bill?' ... [they said], 'No no, we can’t do that,” Communication Workers of America President Larry Cohen told a delegation of CWA members lobbying against the bill. “And now the Republican minority can [insert] provisions—these are draconian provisions from the point of view of airline organizing – there is no compromise here."

In May 2010, the National Mediation Board, which oversees union elections in the rail and airline industries, altered a federal rule to allow union representation to be approved by a majority of workers who vote—rather than counting those who do not vote as votes against unionization. That decision angered airlines and Republicans, who tried to change the rule back in the bill that passed this week. But the measure was stripped in committee.

Thus Democratic leaders like Sen. Jay. D Rockefeeler (D- W.Va.) have praised the bill as a compromise even though it still raises a new barrier to unions. "I happen to think it's a very, very good bill," Rockefeller said.

Currently, CWA is attempting to organize 9,000 passenger service workers at American Airlines, which has laid off 2,000 employees in the last eight years. (The comapny is now looking to shed more of its workforce and dump pensions through bankruptcy proceedings.)

Under the “compromise bill” passed by Senate Democrats, CWA would need not only 50 percent of the 9,000 passenger service workers currently working for American in order to file for an election, but 50 percent of those workers and the 2,000 laid off employees combined; many of these laid-off employees will not return to American Airlines and are difficult for union organizers to track down to sign union petitions since they no longer worker there.

In addition, the “compromise bill” would strip the rights of unionized airline or railway employees when their company merges with a nonunion company. Currently, under the Railway Labor Act, when a unionized company merges with a nonunionized company , a union election is automatically triggered to see if the workers in the new merged company want a union (as long as the previously unionized workforce represents 35 percent of the workforce).

Under the new rules, workers in a unionized company would be immediately stripped of their union rights as soon as their company merges with a nonunion company if those workers represent a minority of workers in a workplace.

Cohen is upset that the rule change the Obama administration made to union elections in 2010 that helps workers organize is not even protected by the FAA compromise bill:

The only advancement in the entire country as we are under attack every minute—that’s a rule, that not even in this statute. The leadership in the Senate didn’t even see fit to include the rule in the gutting of the statue, the rule that Delta is objecting to the first place. The rule that says it’s a majority of those voting, not the majority of the whole electorate if you can get to the election.

So they have changed the [laws governing] an election, but our one little crumb of advancement is left as a rule. So the day there is ever a Republican President elected ... they are going to strip the rule and the statue is going to remain. It’s worse than it’s ever been.

One of the senators voting against the bill was Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who had a very different view of the bill, saying on the floor of the Senate, "My vote is to stand up against the notion that a federal agency and the American workers it is charged to protect should be punished for doing what is right, what is fair, what is within their jurisdiction, and to stand up against a process that allows the few and the powerful to hijack this body, to change the rule of the game in their favor."

The bill is now heading to President Obama’s desk for his signature. Several unions including CWA and the IAM are urging the president to veto the bill. 

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.

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