Dems wade into major airline union battle

Democratic lawmakers have waded into what's becoming a messy union organizing battle at American Airlines.

Both senators and House members have sent letters to American Airlines CEO Tom Horton this week asking the airline to move forward with a union election at the company. The airline, in the midst of bankruptcy proceedings, filed a lawsuit against the National Mediation Board (NMB) earlier this month that objected to the agency setting a union election for the Communications Workers of America (CWA) at the company.

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In a letter sent Tuesday to Horton, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), as well as Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), urged him to hold the union election at American Airlines.

“While we respect American’s right to pursue this issue through the court system, we strongly urge you to allow the election process to move forward in the interim. Your workers have the right to a prompt and fair election, and we urge you to respect that right,” the senators wrote in their letter.

Harkin is chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee while Rockefeller is chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

House Democrats from Illinois have followed up with Horton on the union election, as well.

In a letter sent Thursday, Reps. Jerry Costello, Jesse Jackson, Jr., Daniel Lipinski, Bobby Rush and Jan Schakowsky urged the company to release its workers' addresses to the NMB. Unions have charged that American Airlines has sought to delay the union election at the company by withholding the addresses. 

The House members said in the letter that the addresses are required by law and that the airline's workers deserve “a fair and timely election.”

"It has come to our attention that you have failed to provide the lawfully-required American Airlines employee addresses to the National Mediation Board, despite numerous deadlines set by the board. We ask that you recognize your workers' right to a fair and timely election and that you take immediate action to provide the employee addresses," the members wrote.

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In a letter sent Friday in response to the House members, Horton said one member of the NMB argued that the agency was wrong to authorize the union election.

"In short, our legal counsel believes that upon judicial review the courts will determine that the dissenting view on the board will prevail and that, according to the law and judicial precedent, an election should not be held," Horton said. "To hold an election before such a determination is made would be an enormous waste of resources, particularly during this time of restructuring, and highly misleading and confusing for our employees."

CWA has sought to represent more than 9,000 passenger service agents at American Airlines.

In its lawsuit, the airline believes that a higher threshold should apply to triggering a union election under the Railway Labor Act.

American Airlines wants the NMB to apply a threshold of 50 percent of its passenger service agents indicating their interest in having a union election.

When CWA filed its petition in December 2011, the percentage threshold of workers for triggering a union election was 35 percent.

That threshold was later raised to 50 percent by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization bill that became law in February this year.

In April, the NMB authorized a union election for the American Airlines passenger service agents and set its date, which was to be held from May 17 to June 19.

In its lawsuit, the airline said the agency was not right in setting the union election.

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“Notwithstanding that the union’s application does not satisfy that newly enacted 50 percent standard, the NMB has ignored the statutory mandate and directed a union representation election among American’s Passenger Service employees,” American Airlines states in their lawsuit.

But in their letter to Horton, the senators say the change in the FAA reauthorization was never meant to be applied retroactively to union election petitions filed before the bill became law.

“Beyond the clearly established precedent that limits the retroactivity of changes in the law, in this case Congress included specific language in the amendments addressing this issue — the language specifies that the determination of the adequacy of showing of interest is made ‘upon receipt of application,” Reid and others wrote.

The Justice Department has also weighed in this week, filing a motion to dismiss American Airlines’ lawsuit because they say the court does not have jurisdiction to rule on the matter.

Ed Wytkind, president of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO — which represents 32 unions across the transportation sector — said the airline was in the wrong.