Are Senate Democrats to Blame for Blocking Union Election for 10,000 American Airline Workers?

Mike Elk

In an unprecedented legal move, a federal judge last week blocked a union election for 10,000 American Airlines passenger-service agents. Federal District Judge Terry R. Means, a George H.W. Bush appointee, ruled that an anti-union FAA law that went into effect in February, raising the number of signatures required for workers to file for a union election, should be applied retroactively. The American Airlines workers had petitioned the National Mediation Board in December for a union election to join the Communication Workers of America (CWA). The National Mediation Board had previously ordered an election to begin last Thursday, June 21, but now that election has been cancelled. 

Means’ decision effectively blocks the union election from occurring for months as the case winds its way through the appeals process. Pro-union American Airline customer-service agents had hoped to hold the election quickly so that the CWA could represent them during American Airlines ongoing bankruptcy proceedings, which have prompted the company to float cutting workers jobs and wages.

Here in America, we’re taught to respect democracy and our right to vote. Sadly, the court’s decision today is an attack on the rights of these average Americans, agents who just want the opportunity to participate in a democratic election,” said Sandy Rusher, CWA’s organizing director in charge of American Airlines organizing.

American Airlines celebrated the decision. We are pleased the U.S. District Court has ruled that American’s position prevails’ and our employees’ rights are protected regarding the CWA’s application for a representation election,” says American Airlines spokesperson Bruce Hicks. The case boils down to this: Current law says a union must get support from at least 50 percent of employees it hopes to unionize in order to hold an election. The CWA has admitted it was unable to meet that mark.”

The decision by Means is indeed unprecedented, since no provision of the FAA bill states it should be applied to union elections that were filed before the law was passed by Congress, as was the case with the American Airlines election.

It’s not only unprecedented; it’s an example of how this very ugly culture of breaking unions has infiltrated every sector of the economy including aviation, which has been pretty heavily unionized. American has historically had very mature relationships with unions going back decades, but that all went away,” says Ed Wytkind, president of AFL-CIO Transportation Trade Department. The company has defied a federal order to hold an election and then found a sympathetic judge to enjoin the order.”

Wytkind notes that even if the union does win an expedited appeal in federal court, as he expects they will, it will likely take many months for workers to hold that election. He thinks workers could have to wait nearly a year from when they first filed last December to finally get an election. In the meantime, the 10,000 customer-service agents who don’t have a union could suffer severely as American Airlines goes through bankruptcy.

They are dead without a union voice. All the other work groups at American Airlines have a union,” says Wytkind. They have gone toe-to-toe with these companies during bankruptcy and the company hasn’t been able to break a single one of their contracts in court. The Passenger Service Agents are on their own. These workers are now being asked to fend for themselves.”

Ultimately, though, some of the blame for blocking the union election must fall on the 36 Senate Democrats who voted for the anti-union FAA bill in February.

Senate Democrats cut a deal with a very anti-union Republican leadership in the House and we didn’t support it. Obviously, they have had some consequences here,” says Wytkind. There is nothing in law saying it should apply retroactively to elections filed for before the law took effect. American Airlines got a double whammy here. They got the new law, which we didn’t support, and they got to stop this election now.”

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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