Labor, Republicans battle over organizing in transportation sector

The inroads that labor unions have made in the transportation sector this year are being met with fervent resistance from Republicans. 

Even as state-level fights over labor rights have raged in places like Wisconsin and Ohio, Capitol Hill has been consumed with the actions of federal agencies like the National Mediation Board (NMB) and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) that have helped unions expand their ranks in the travel industry.

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One battle over union rights for airline and railroad employees has helped stall the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) reauthorization bill. The gridlock is forcing the House next week to take up another stopgap measure — the 19th in a row — to fund the FAA.

House Republicans inserted a provision in the FAA reauthorization bill to repeal the NMB’s new rules that would ease union organizing. The White House threatened to veto the legislation unless that provision was removed.

The board’s new union organizing rules continue to attract GOP attention. Some Republicans have even suggested defunding the NMB if it does not repeal the new labor standards. 

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said this week that he was going to look into the rules that were changed last year to ensure that non-voters were not counted as votes against forming a union for workers covered by the Railway Labor Act.

In a letter to NMB Chairman Harry Hoglander, Issa said he wants to take a look at whether the board was trying to “advance a partisan policy agenda.”

“We are concerned by the National Mediation Board’s decision to advance a rule which allows a minority of employees to determine union representation,” wrote Issa and Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.), who heads up the House Subcommittee on Labor Policy. 

“For over 75 years, the board conducted union representation elections according to the principle that a union would be certified as the collective bargaining representative only if a majority of the eligible employees in the relevant craft or class voted in favor of union representation,” the letter said.

Supporters of the NMB’s action argue that union elections should be conducted like elections for political office, where those who show up to vote determine a majority. 

Meanwhile, labor is set to score a big victory Monday on organizing at the TSA despite GOP moves to block it.

On Monday the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) and the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) will face off in a runoff election to be the exclusive union of the TSA. The voting is expected to last nearly a month.

The TSA decided to grant the agency’s 40,000 transportation security officers collective bargaining rights earlier this year over strong GOP opposition.

“Obviously, it was a very long, hard-fought fight for these employees to earn collective bargaining rights,” said Colleen Kelley, NTEU’s national president. “In these times when there has been so many attacks on collective bargaining rights, it was a huge win not only for the employees but for the agency, since this will help them be more effective at doing their jobs.”

AFGE and NTEU officials told The Hill that they expected their union membership to spike if they win the runoff election. That expansion of union ranks would not have come to pass if GOP lawmakers had been successful in their efforts to block it.

After TSA Administrator John Pistole granted agency workers collective bargaining rights in February, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) sponsored an amendment to the FAA bill that would have stripped them of those rights. That failed to pass on a narrow party-line vote.

Before that, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) held up the nomination of Erroll Southers as TSA administrator after he repeatedly asked the nominee about his plans to unionize the agency. Now, DeMint says, there isn’t much he can do to stop the TSA union election.

“There is not a lot we can do now except stamp our feet, because the employer here is the federal government. They are the ones that are pushing the unionization,” DeMint told reporters Thursday on a conference call sponsored by the right-leaning Workforce Fairness Institute. “I don’t know what we can do, because I have tried to make this an important issue, but it has been very difficult to get the media to even cover it.”

But DeMint has not given up on another union-related effort to block a complaint by the National Labor Relations Board against Boeing for allegedly retaliating against union workers. The company planned to set up a second production line for its 787 Dreamliner jet in South Carolina — a right-to-work state that tends to ban mandatory union membership — due to worries over possible work stoppages in its unionized plants in Washington state.

That led to the labor board filing a complaint against Boeing, which DeMint called “anti-American and anti-democratic.”

The senator has signed on to legislation introduced by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) last week that would protect states’ right-to-work laws. DeMint said he also plans to keep pushing the issue into the spotlight to force the labor board’s general counsel, Lafe Solomon, to back off the complaint. 

The next step for the complaint is a June 14 hearing before an administrative law judge in Seattle.

Christopher Corson, general counsel of the International Association of Machinists, said the recent transportation fights over labor are the product of Republicans using whatever mechanisms they can to try to thwart them.

“They are just looking for issues that they can turn into an overall attack,” Corson said.

The Machinists first raised charges of Boeing retaliating against union workers with the labor board. Corson said the labor board’s subsequent complaint has been twisted into an attack on states’ right-to-work laws. 

“What the board is doing is a law enforcement action here. A law enforcement action should not be hijacked by a politician for their agenda,” Corson said. 

DeMint sees it differently, saying that labor is in decline and that the Obama administration is coming to the rescue. 

“The only way to save unions is to have the government step in and force workers to join unions,” DeMint said. “We have got a shameless and cynical promotion of unions going on here.”