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Wednesday
Nov042009

The National Mediation Board: From Honest Brokers to K Street Politicians

Something is just not right about the speed with which the National Mediation Board issued a Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) to amend the Railway Labor Act

I’m guessing that the reasons had more to do with politics than good policy. Something is just not right.       

In its proposed rule, the NMB is seeking to change the election process by which unions organize workers in the railway and airline industries. The new rule, which would change 75 years of practice, would for the first time determine the outcome of union elections based on a majority of those who vote rather than current practice, where a majority of all eligible voters must support joining a union.

What is laughable about this change, at least to this observer, is that the Board describes the NPRM as part of its “ongoing efforts to further the statutory goals of the Railway Labor Act.”  Funny, because the overarching statutory goals of the RLA is to minimize the disruption on interstate commerce stemming from labor-management disputes.  And this rule would likely do just the opposite: increase the likelihood of union activities that could wreak havoc on our nation’s commerce.

Never do I remember the use of the formal NPRM process to make such a significant change to labor law.

But before we go too far, it is important to note the dissenting opinion of the Chairman of the Board.  The NPRM was issued by NMB members Harry Hoglander and Linda Puchala – the two Democratic appointees on the three-member Board. The Chairman, GOP appointee Elizabeth Dougherty, in a formal dissent challenged the action of her fellow Board members

 “Regardless of composition of the Board or the inhabitant of the White House, this independent agency has never been in the business of making controversial, one-sided rule changes at the behest of only labor or management,” Dougherty wrote.  And it is this very mindset of Hoglander and Puchala in the drafting of the NPRM that smacks of politics, disregard for prior practice and arrogance in refusing to address subjects of similar importance in the labor arena, including the ability of employees to decertify a union and a union’s right to demand the personal contact information of employees they hope to organize known as an Excelsior list.

Let’s Talk Stability

On September 28, 2009 I blogged in a piece titled:  Airline Industry Eyes on the National Mediation Board,  that looked at this very issue..  The rule change was sought by labor – the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO as part of its efforts to make it easier to organize airline workers. But the proposed rule is loaded with the potential for unintended consequences, particularly for incumbent unions that might be the target of “raids” by competing unions encouraged by the possibility of picking up new members in an industry already heavily unionized. 

Stability is one issue Chairman Dougherty addresses in her dissent, albeit for different reasons:

 “The Board has repeatedly articulated important policy reasons for our current majority voting rule – including our duty to maintain stability in the air and rail industries,” she writes. “This duty stems directly from our statutory mandate to ’avoid interruption to commerce or the operation of any rail or air carrier.’ The Majority attempts to ignore this important statutory mandate by claiming that only our mediation function is relevant to keeping stability in the air and rail industries. This argument has no merit. The statute does not limit our mandate to only mediation, and it is disingenuous to suggest that our representation function does not play an important role in carrying out our duty to maintain stability in these industries. Moreover, the Board has repeatedly in the past raised this policy issue in conjunction with our representation function.”

But it is just that stability that would suffer in the case of more frequent labor disputes and work actions designed to cripple a carrier’s service.

Some will say that disruption of interstate commerce was one thing in the 1930’s when the RLA was last amended and yet another thing in 2009 to justify making changes to 75 years of practice.  Not so fast.  In the 1930’s, interstate commerce consisted more of construction materials transported by train.  Today’s economy is about “just-in-time” delivery of every commodity imaginable and that includes the crucial role of airlines in getting business travelers to and from their destinations.  Time sensitive materials and travel are critical to today’s economy and fundamental to the service modern airlines provide.  So avoiding disruption is as applicable -- if not more important -- today as it was then.

Why Should You or I Care?

I have been asked by many really smart people why I oppose this change. After all, it would only put in place the very election practice of majority voting that is at the core of our democracy.  From that perspective, I could easily wrap myself in the flag and say the change sought by the unions makes absolute sense. 

But let’s give it a closer look. Our election practices were established by the U.S. Constitution. The 12th and 17th Amendments changed the rules for electing Presidents and Senators, but only after careful deliberation.  And just as the Constitution establishes the framework for the establishment of the Federal government and its relationship with states and citizens, the RLA establishes the framework for the resolution of labor-management practices in the railroad and airline industries. 

I am not a lawyer. But I do know that there is much learned discussion around the issue of original intent as it pertains to the Constitution.  Changes can be made and have been made to that ruling document.  Similarly, changes can be made to the RLA.  But that should happen only after careful deliberation. Moreover, it should not occure on the whim of two NMB members.  I hesitate to even suggest that these changes are being imposed by the Obama Administration on a struggling industry as a way to pay back labor for its support during the campaign, but it is beginning to smell that way.

Should the Industry Really Care?

The fact is, this proposed rule change is aimed at a single airline, Delta, which is less-unionized than any other legacy carrier.  And as the nation’s largest airline following its acquisition of Northwest, Delta is clearly a tempting union target.

So should anyone other than Delta really care? There is probably plenty of water cooler discussion taking place in Dallas, Chicago, Houston and Phoenix to name a few airline headquarters. One can only imagine that, in their view and on one hand, it is high time that Delta has to deal with the same labor challenges that have burdened other airlines for decades.

Delta is unique in the industry in its ability to offer above industry W2 compensation in return for work rule and commercial flexibility.  That’s been possible because Delta isn’t constrained by union contracts that limit productivity, add rigid work rules and protections and add other fixed operating costs.  Under unionization this past practice and fact becomes a question mark.

But I believe that the industry should be concerned about this Board action, both in impact and in precedent. Assuming the rule is implemented as I believe it will be, then all airlines with unrepresented work groups should prepare for union organizing activity unlike anything this industry has seen in two decades.  AirTran, jetBlue, Republic/Frontier and SkyWest should stand ready.

Let me be clear.  I am not saying that unions are all bad.  Good leadership on the union side and a willing management can make deals.  Look at the deals done in 2009.  Look at the most unionized carrier in the US industry – Southwest – which thanks in part to a strong relationship with its unions has managed to pay well and do well in the marketplace by building a great corporate culture and making productivity and customer service a priority

On the other hand, unenlightened and parochial thinking pervade the leadership ranks of many airline unions.  The industry will continue to face change and challenges. Unions that adapt and are able to let go of the past will flourish.  Unions that cannot adapt to the new direction of the global airline industry will struggle to deliver for their members.

Will unions grow stronger and gain members under the new rule? Probably. Does the NMB appear politically-motivated? Absolutely. That’s a real problem.

Today, several airlines are negotiating collective bargaining agreements under the auspice of the NMB. Whereas in the past the parties would have been sent back to the bargaining table to work out their differences, we might in the near future see a reckless use of the release process by a politically motivated Board.

[Note:  I am currently a local AFA appointed board member at Hawaiian Holdings, Inc. where the ALPA represented pilots have requested a release from mediation.  Writing on this topic is purely my own view on happenings at the National Mediation Board and in no way is intended to represent the views of Hawaiian Holdings, Inc., Hawaiian Airlines, Inc., or represent the views of local HAL AFA President, Ms. Sharon Soper.  The opinion stated is solely that of William Swelbar.]

What Does it Mean for Airline Unions?

I always watch with interest what James Hoffa and the Teamsters Union say about the airline and railroad industries.  In a November 3, 2009 Wall Street Journal article by Mike Esterl and Melanie Trottman on this very subject, Hoffa is quoted in support of the proposed change: “This reform lets workers choose a union the same way they choose the President of the United States,” he said. Whichever side gets the most votes, wins.”

But I’m guessing that Hoffa’s real goal is something else entirely. Because Hoffa and his Teamsters Union split from the AFL-CIO, they are free to raid another union by petitioning the NMB to organize workers represented by a different union.  The leaders of AFA, the IAM and ALPA ought to start looking over their shoulders now, because another union might be standing in the shadows. And that union might just be aiming for dissatisfied members that – whether out of anger toward the incumbent union or the struggling economy – might just be open to considering switching allegiances in hopes of getting a better deal. After all, under the RLA it takes only 35 percent of the workers in a “class or craft” to sign a card showing interest in a union.  And then, under the proposed rule, only a simple majority of the minority would be necessary to vote the incumbent union out. 

Imagine how tempting the prospect of signing up new dues-paying members from any number of small railroads around the country, whether for the IBT, the SEIU, or any other aggressive union that shows little interest in abiding by the etiquette of the House of Labor?  In industries in which two-thirds of workers already are represented by unions, a raid targeting disgruntled employees (an unfortunately large group in the airline industry) would present the best opportunity for a union to gain “market share.”

One can only assume that the strategists at the TTD and the AFA-CWA have thought all of this through. They must be counting on passage; otherwise, why would the AFA-CWA and the IAMAW have moved to withdraw their applications for single carrier determination at the merged Delta that is necessary to initiate a representation election?  And the fact that they’ve come this far leads me to believe that they have some pretty powerful friends in Washington, D.C.

Something is just not right

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