Z MAGAZINE ONLINE-ONLY ARTICLE
The Transport Workers Union (TWU) was locked in a major fight for union recognition at Continental Airlines in early January 2008. Unfortunately, few noticed. This was not surprising. With so much national attention focused on the New Hampshire, Nevada, and Michigan primaries, the TWU bid to organize 7,700 baggage handlers flew under the radar.
Nonetheless, for Continental employees who suffered almost 10 percent wage cuts in 2005, the union election promise of change was more than an empty campaign tag. Unfor- tunately, it was a failed opportunity. The TWU narrowly lost by a 314 vote margin in its third bid in as many years. A reported 3,517 employees voted for the union, but this figure was still painfully shy of the high bar required by the Railway Labor Act (RLA) that 50 percent plus one of eligible employees must vote.
Quite differently, National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) election results are based on the number of votes tallied and do not require a majority to cast ballots. It is the same for all local, state, and federal elections in the United States. As a result, not voting in RLA union-representation elections is the same as voting “no.” This is because not voting subtracts from the goal of achieving the elusive majority of active and furloughed employees who must participate in the election.
Continental ramp workers remain among the largest non-union group of airline workers, along with 6,000 baggage handlers at Delta who have long been targeted for organizing by the International Association of Machinists (IAM). Both Delta and Continental are major players in highly publicized merger talks with union-represented carriers Northwest and United. This prospect raises both big opportunities and serious risks for airline labor.
Combining union and non-union workforces is governed by a complex RLA procedure which involves determining which is the “surviving or single carrier” that ultimately arises from a merger, and/or if there is “comparable” size between the combining union and non-union work groups. How these questions are answered will determine whether an RLA union-recognition election is scheduled or whether union recognition is extended automatically because of a clear union majority among the combined workforces. Accordingly, unions have both benefited and suffered from such situations.
Most recently, IAM membership was extended without an election to about 3,500 America West fleet service/mechanic employees when their carrier merged with the larger “surviving, single carrier” US Airways. This was because US Airways had a larger IAM-represented workforce. However, thousands of union workers lost recognition in 1986 when a majority of eligible employees failed to vote in an RLA election scheduled after PSA and Piedmont combined with then USAir.
As evidenced by the recent loss at Continental, a vote for union recognition among airline employees today risks elimination of unions if less than the required 50 percent plus one fail to vote. This is a frightening, but potentially realistic prospect given the demoralization and frustration among airline workers who have suffered enormous blows over the last five years.
The IAM and TWU understand that successful organizing at non-union carriers like Continental and Delta would certainly lower the risks. But it appears more likely that mergers between union and non-union airlines will come first. As an example, if RLA union recognition elections are scheduled at NWA and United because of a merger with Delta and Continental respectively, the very big risks illustrated by the recent TWU loss will also be accompanied by the simultaneously very big opportunities to expand the scope of union labor. Case in point: the America West merger with US Airways.
If an election scenario does unfold due to mergers, expect a full-out national campaign by the major international transportation unions to retain and expand collective bargaining rights among airline workers. Currently, among the best organized workers in the private sector, airline union workers may be looking ahead to the fight of their lives.
Carl Finamore is a freelance writer on union/labor issues and president of IAMAW Local Lodge 1781.