Labor unions left sour with President Obama set to sign FAA funding bill

Labor’s division over the bill funding the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has helped clear the way for President Obama to sign it.

Unions are split in their opposition to the measure, with some fearing its provision on union election rules endangers organizing.

Union officials say they were kept in the dark about the negotiations between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) that helped pass the bill.

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The resulting compromise changed the Railway Labor Act (RLA) so that the percentage of a company’s workforce needed to vote for holding a union election was increased from 35 to 50 percent.

Some unions, worried by another FAA shutdown, supported the deal; some remained neutral; while others are campaigning for the bill’s veto.

That uncertainty has given political cover to Obama, who is counting on labor support in his bid for re-election later this year.

The president originally threatened to veto the bill because of the concerns about union organizing but said the compromise took care of that.

“While it is unfortunate that Republicans in Congress have injected extraneous ideological measures into this important legislation that will create jobs and improve air traffic safety, the provision referenced in our veto threat has been removed and the president will sign the compromise bill,” a White House official told The Hill.

If he does, the FAA bill will be the first multi-year funding appropriation that has been passed for the aviation agency since its last authorization expired in 2007. The string of short-term extensions the agency was given stretched five months longer than the four years the recently-approved legislation would last.

Obama has until Friday to end that streak by signing the measure.

Republicans have already claimed victory on the compromise, and some Democrats — even ardent supporters of the overall bill — admit it’s flawed due to the RLA language.

“Congress should not be amending the Railway Labor Act in this bill [but] I believe it is necessary to move forward and enact a multi-year reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration,” Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.) said after the House voted approve the measure.

Costello is the ranking Democrat on the House Aviation subcommittee.

The controversy was over a rule finalized by the National Mediation Board (NMB) in May 2010 regarding union organizing rules. Under the old rule, which Republicans wanted to keep, it would count those who didn’t cast union election ballots as "no" votes. Under the compromise, those non-votes are not counted at all.

The result was called a victory by some union leaders but has not been enough for others. For example, the International Association of Machinists is encouraging people to sign a petition to have the president veto the legislation.

Also, in a fiery speech on Feb. 1, Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), refused to call the labor law changes a compromise.

“These are draconian provisions from the point of view of airline organizing. There’s no compromise here,” Cohen said.

The labor leader said lawmakers backed down and didn’t fight for unions in the past when asked to include long-stalled legislation that would ease union organizing in appropriations bills.

“When we said to the leadership why can’t we insert at least some provisions of Employee Free Choice Act into a spending bill … or some bill that must get through eventually, no, no, no, we can’t do that,” Cohen said.

Cohen also said the NMB rule is not as strong as the changes to the union election process that are in the FAA bill. A future Republican president could change the NMB rule again while the FAA bill’s election language would remain, the union president noted.

The union said they worked behind the scenes to try to reverse the deal.

CWA officials had private conversations with Democrats, like Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and his aides, immediately after the deal was announced. The union tried to work with those offices to see if there would be any chance to fix the language, according to Candice Johnson, a CWA spokeswoman.

Adam Jentleson, a Reid spokesman, said that “no one got everything they wanted, but this bill advances our number one goal of keeping our economy moving and keeping working Americans on the job.”

Harkin voted against the bill due to its changes to the RLA.

CWA eventually went public with its grievances regarding the bill. But by the time the union made its opposition known, other labor groups had shown support for the compromise.

On Jan. 20, the day the deal was announced, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) released a statement praising the deal. The next day, the Air Line Pilots Association made a similar statement. And by Jan. 23, the Transport Workers Union said they could live with the proposed changes.

Public opposition among labor would come much later. On Jan. 30, ten days after the deal was first announced, a letter signed by 19 unions came out opposing the deal.

“It's not perfect but it's a pretty good bill. It's exactly what this aviation system needs,” said Paul Rinaldi, NATCA’s president. “The push to kill it makes no sense at all to me. Zero.”

Rinaldi noted a provision in the bill guarantees collective bargaining rights for FAA workers. Further, the FAA is funded for the next four years — another plus for NATCA’s 20,000 members, who were hurt by last year’s partial shutdown.

“We have been butting heads on this since 2007,” Rinaldi said. He said other unions are not as dependent on FAA funding.

“They have nothing to lose and everything to gain.  … Our whole lives are wrapped up in this bill,” Rinaldi said.

The NATCA president added that most unions won't organize a work site unless they have a 50 percent threshold or higher of people wanting to hold a union election.

“I look at the compromise as not that a big deal,” Rinaldi said. “We wanted that NMB provision out. That was a win for labor.”