Appeals Court OKs Union Election for 10,000 American Airlines Workers

Mike Elk

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals brought American Airlines back to Earth yesterday by validating the authority of the National Mediation Board.

In June, a federal judge blocked a planned union representation election for American Airlines’ 10,000 customer-service agents. The judge ruled that the Communications Workers of America (CWA) needed to redo its petition for the union representation election since a part of the new FAA reauthorization had changed the threshold of workers needed to file for an election. At the time, CWA blasted the decision, claiming that the law should not be applied retroactively since the union had filed for election months before the reauthorization bill had been passed.

On Wednesday, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that judge’s initial decision, ordering the National Mediation Board (NMB) to schedule an election for American Airlines’ customer-service agents. The Fifth Circuit Court ruling claimed that the George H.W. Bush-appointed federal judge, Terry N. Means, should not have overturned the National Mediation Board’s previous ruling to go forward with the election.

The Appeals Court instructed Means to dismiss the case because he did not have proper jurisdiction to rule on it in the first place. The ruling states that judicial reviews of NMB decisions to hold elections are only appropriate where there is a plain violation’ of an unambiguous and mandatory provision of the statute, or in other words, where the NMB has committed egregious error.’ ” The decision also stated that judicial review is not applicable on the facts of this case and therefore the district court erred in exercising jurisdiction. As a result, we do not need to reach the other issues presented on this appeal.”

American Airlines did not immediately respond to request for comment, although they wrote a letter to their employees, suggesting they were not finished fighting the election. CWA, however, applauded the decision.

Now, the National Mediation Board can go forward with the election process that had been wrongly denied to American Airlines passenger service agents since they filed for union representation in December 2011,” said a statement released by the CWA. Those employees will finally have the opportunity to exercise their legal right to vote on union representation.”

It’s not clear when the NMB will schedule an election, though the CWA hopes it happens soon. As American Airlines goes through bankruptcy proceedings and layoffs become more and more likely, the CWA feels that the workers will need a union to represent their interests.

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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