Court: Rule change for transportation union elections is valid

A rule change that led to a yearlong congressional fight that, this summer, caused a brief shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration, has been upheld on appeal.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled Friday in favor of the National Mediation Boards (NMB) decision to allow employees of companies that fall under the Railway Labor Act to form unions if a majority votes in favor. The decision affirms a ruling reached by a lower court.


House Republicans pushed this year to revert to the old rules, under which workers who did not cast ballots in union elections would be counted as no votes. The effort, which came in the form of an amendment to the FAAs funding bill, led to a protracted fight with Democrats and union groups and to a brief shutdown of the FAA this summer.

The appeals court ruled that the NMB was within its rights to change the rules.

The fact that a majority of eligible voters decides to abstain — i.e., not exercise its right — hardly suggests that the majority was deprived of its right, the court said in a 38-page ruling. This is how voting rights work.

Citizens with the right to vote in a presidential election must register, show up to a polling place on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, wait in line, enter the booth and pick a candidate in order to exercise their right. Those who fail to do so have not been deprived of their right. 

The ruling was hailed by transportation unions. The parent group for the union for flight attendants, the Communication Workers of America (CWA), said the decision eliminated the Republican argument for not passing a long-term funding bill for the FAA.

The agency is currently operating under a short-term appropriations measure that expires in January. But CWA Communications Director Candice Johnson said the agency should be given a long-term funding bill without the labor provisions, now that the appeals court has decided to uphold the NMB rules.

“This court ruling demolishes the argument that the NMB overstepped its bounds in ensuring that NMB elections count only the ballots of those who actually vote,” Johnson said in a statement. 

“Just as importantly, today’s ruling means that the rationale used by many Republican leaders to continue to block the long-term FAA agreement is null and void. This ruling settles this issue once and for all: Republicans cannot continue to block the upgrades and job benefits of the FAA over a provision that has the force of law, fairness and common sense behind it.”


Ed Wytkind, president of the AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department, agreed.

“This validates our view ... which is that the board has complete authority to set its own policy,” Wytkind said in an interview with The Hill.

“Now there’s been two decisions that affirmed that right, so we couldn’t be more right,” he said, referring to the earlier decision by the U.S. District Court for D.C. to uphold the rule change.

The lawsuit was filed by the lobbying group for the airline industry, which is listed on the case as the Air Transport Association, but recently changed its name to Airlines for America.

The agency said Friday that it still believes the NMB’s decision to change the union election rules for airline and railroad workers was inappropriate, despite the appeals court decision against that argument.

“We continue to believe, as 75 years of labor law has consistently held, that the majority of those to be represented should have a voice in the union election process, and we will work cooperatively with the NMB to address our concerns,” Airlines for America said in a statement.

“We are hopeful that Congress can now move forward with a much-needed, long-term FAA reauthorization bill.”