Republican breaks ranks on union issue

Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) will sponsor an amendment to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization bill that, if passed, would strike back at his party’s efforts to limit union organizing at airline and railway companies.

LaTourette’s amendment would protect a rule finalized last year by the National Mediation Board that would make it easier to organize unions at airline and railway companies.

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House Republicans included a provision in the FAA reauthorization bill that would repeal the labor rule. 

A spokeswoman for LaTourette confirmed to The Hill that the Ohio Republican planned to offer the amendment to nix the repeal of the union rule. 

With the FAA legislation expected to come to the House floor as early as Thursday, LaTourette’s measure will set off what has been billed as the biggest showdown yet this Congress between House Republicans and the labor movement. 

Union leaders heaped praise on LaTourette for breaking with his party.

“I applaud Steven for actually coming forward, getting this on the floor and moving it forward,” said James C. Little, international president of the Transport Workers Union of America (TWU). “It’s a sensible law. What [the Board was] trying to do was to make progress and make union elections more democratic.”

It had long been the standard that transit companies covered under the Railway Labor Act had to vote to join a union, while those not casting a ballot were counted as “no” votes. 

Under the revised rule, if a majority of workers cast votes for forming a union, the company would be unionized. Workers who failed to vote would not count for either side.

Critics of the new rule say it changes more than 75 years of precedent and note allegations that the lone GOP member of the National Mediation Board, Elizabeth Dougherty, was not consulted about it.

Republicans also say the process of decertifying a union remains too cumbersome for workers.

“Although decertification under existing rules was and is extremely difficult and the same question was also before the Board, the NMB did not vote to make that process any easier,” said Justin Harclerode, a spokesman for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. 

Republicans have hoped to beat back the new rule by including a provision in the FAA reauthorization bill to repeal it.

Legislative aides for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held a briefing Tuesday for Republican aides who had questions about the repeal of the Board’s rule. Attending the briefing was Dougherty as well as flight attendants for Delta Air Lines, which opposes the new rule.

Delta employees are on Capitol Hill this week to lobby for the repeal of the Board’s rule. Leading the charge: a Delta workers group called No Way AFA (Association of Flight Attendants), which opposes unionizing the company. 

“It is certainly within our right — and probably beyond time — to lobby Congress on behalf of what we feel is constant harassment by a union that won’t give up and cries foul to a sympathetic board to have decades-old rules changed at their whim,” said Mathew Palmer, a Delta flight attendant and spokesman for the group, in an email.

Despite the push by GOP leaders and Delta, it’s not certain that all Republican House members will vote for repeal. The measure repealing the rule was nearly stripped out during its committee markup when three Republicans voted to remove it.

Unions believe it will be a close vote later this week and are expecting several Republicans to vote for LaTourette’s amendment.

“We expect to be on the floor with it, and we think we stand a very reasonable chance of wining support on both sides of the aisle,” said Edward Wytkind, president of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department.

Wytkind said LaTourette was a natural choice to carry the pro-union amendment.

“Mr. LaTourette has a long record of supporting collective bargaining across the economy,” Wytkind said. “It’s not unusual for someone like him to take the lead on something like this.”

Other unions are mobilizing against the repeal of the Board’s rule. The Communications Workers of America — the parent union of the AFA — sent a report to lawmakers Monday showing that not one member of Congress would have won election in 2010 if they were conducted under the old union organizing rule. 

“Why should airlines and railway union elections be held to a different standard than every other election across the country?” said Shane Larson, legislative director for the Communications Workers. “This doesn’t pass the laugh test. Why should you be automatically assigned a vote when you didn’t vote?”

The fight over the union provision has largely obscured an effort to end a three-year delay in authorizing a long-term funding plan for the FAA. As it has debated the larger bill, which would fund the FAA for four years, Congress has passed short-term authorizations, most recently through September.

Prior to the union flap, Senate Democrats pushed the measure as an “aviation jobs bill” when it passed the upper chamber in February. They, however, haven’t said much since the repeal of the Board’s rule was added to the House version.

Labor hasn't won every union election held since the new rules were put in place.

Delta workers have rejected unionization in a series of close elections. In addition, TWU won a union election for flight attendants at Allegiant Airways but ended up losing one for that airline’s flight dispatchers.

“We had a major election at Delta and the union didn’t win. I don’t know what they are trying to achieve by this,” Little said of TWU.

- This article was corrected on March 30 to reflect that unions have had mixed results with organizing since the new rules were put in place.