Labor unions battle over rule change

Business groups and unions are battling over a decision by a federal board that eases the rules for employees at airlines and railways to form unions.

Though many airline and railroad employees covered by the Railway Labor Act are already unionized, the change could have a big impact on companies like Delta, JetBlue and Federal Express that have non-union workers.

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The proposed change by the National Mediation Board (NMB) would overturn a rule in place for decades that counts those not voting in union elections as “no” votes.

The AFL-CIO had petitioned for the change, and the proposed rule illustrates the clout labor has with the new administration.

The union coalition argues that a majority of those voting “aye” should be enough for a union to be organized.

If the rules go into effect, employers would lose an advantage they’ve had in fighting unions, said Ed Wytkind, president of the AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department. He predicted it would ease the ability of workers covered by the rules to organize.

Opponents say the threshold for forming a union should be the votes of a majority of workers.

Republican Reps. John Kline (Minn.) and John Mica (Fla.) issued a release that called it a radical proposal that adds “to a troubling perception that federal agencies have embraced a culture of union favoritism.”

Mica and Kline had written the board urging it to turn down the AFL-CIO’s proposed change.

The NMB agreed with labor in a 2-to-1 decision, which will now be subject to a 60-day comment period. Both sides are likely to call attention to the rule during that period, though it’s unclear whether the NMB is likely to change its proposal.

The two board members who said the rules should be changed, who are both Democratic Party appointees, sided with unions in arguing that most democratic elections are won by the majority of those voting and do not require that a majority of those eligible to vote cast ballots.

Most union elections are covered by the National Labor Relations Board rules, and only require a majority of those voting in favor of forming a union.

The two NMB members backing the change wrote that the current NMB procedure “appears to be at odds with the modern participatory workplace philosophy” as well as with “the basic principles of democratic elections.”

Board President Elizabeth Dougherty dissented, and argued against changing a 75-year-old rule. She said “one-sided rule changes” at the behest of labor or management should not be made by the board regardless of its composition “or the inhabitant of the White House.”

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The rule change was expected after the election of President Barack Obama, and his appointee to the board provided the deciding vote.

The trade association for U.S. airlines criticized the decision, as did coalitions representing business groups in the card-check fight in Congress. That legislation would change labor election rules so that an employer could no longer demand a secret-ballot election.

Instead, if a majority of workers check authorization cards indicating their support for a union, the union would be formed.

The Workforce Fairness Institute issued a press release titled “Forced Unionization” in response to the proposed rule change, and criticized the NMB for providing a “bailout” to the AFL-CIO.

The trade association for airlines said NMB does not have the authority to change the rules, saying only Congress has the authority to make the change.

Dougherty also said there is a serious question over whether the NMB has the statutory authority to make the change.