Busting Union Reform

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is touting the recent passage of his "compromise" bill reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration, the agency that oversees U.S. air transport. Unfortunately for airline workers, Congress missed a rare opportunity to enact needed reforms to America's labor laws.

After months of heated debate, leaders finally reached a deal late last month when House Republicans' promised to drop controversial labor language from the bill in exchange for Reid's concession to remove some particularly onerous provisions. But those concessions amount to mere Band-Aids on a labor regime that systematically favors powerful unions at the expense of individual workers — and the flying public.

Before Congressional Republicans cut their deal with Senator Reid, they had sought to overhaul the Railway Labor Act (RLA), the federal law that governs labor regulations for the nation's railroads and airlines. An earlier version of the FAA Reauthorization Act would have reversed new union election rules recently promulgated by the National Mediation Board (NMB), a three-member panel that's overseen airline labor regulations since 1936.

In 2010, the NMB changed a longstanding RLA election rule. For 75 years, the rule required a petitioning union to receive a majority vote of at least 50 percent plus one of all workers in a job category—known as a "class or craft"—for it to be recognized as the exclusive bargaining agent for that group of workers. Under the NMB's new rule, however, a union need only win a majority of votes cast.

While the new rule has made it easier than ever for unions to win elections, the original rule already stacked the deck in unions' favor. More than 80 percent of railroad workers and 70 percent of airline workers are unionized.

Under the original rule, when multiple unions petitioned to represent a class or craft but none received a majority of the votes, a runoff election was to be held. Yet only unions were eligible to participate in runoff elections. For example, imagine that 100 workers vote in an election, with Union A and Union B each receiving 30 votes, while the "No Union" option gets 40. The runoff ballot would only include Unions A and B, even though "No Union" won a plurality of the votes in the first round.

Under the new "compromise," runoff election ballots may include the "No Union" option only if it is one of the top two vote getters in the first round. But why should the "No Union" option have to meet any conditions before workers may vote for it? Workers' right to opt out of union membership should never be circumscribed.

Reid also agreed to raise from 35 percent to 50 percent the threshold of workers in a class or craft "showing of interest"—usually by signing a union authorization card—to trigger an election. But this tweak is largely cosmetic, as most unions have a longstanding policy of not filing for an election until they have signed union cards from at least 50 percent of workers in a bargaining unit, anyway. (Under existing rules, workers who want to oust a union are already required to get a 50 percent showing of interest to trigger a decertification election.)

Another largely cosmetic change is a new requirement for public hearings for any future proposed rule changes by the NMB. Sunshine never hurts, but an NMB determined to push through a bad policy will go ahead regardless of what happens at any hearings, especially since the board is exempt from congressional accountability or judicial oversight.

The FAA Reauthorization Act needed to move forward. But the compromises serve the interests of neither railroad and airline workers nor the traveling public. Rather, they benefit the unions and validate Harry Reid's strategy of ignoring legislative issues that do not benefit special interests favorable to him. After a long fight, the Railway Labor Act remains in severe need of major reform.