The Teamsters Union’s February 12, 2010 election victory to represent 7,600 ground workers at Continental Airlines shows that old-fashioned hard work might be making a comeback when several hundred union organizers fanned out across the country and knocked on doors in 24 cities in preparation for the vote. Teamster volunteers did not limit themselves to the large Continental hubs in Cleveland, Houston, and Newark, as other unions had done in failed organizing efforts over the last 12 years. "We’ve been through this five times and I can say hands down that this is the best campaign, the strongest campaign we’ve had," Gary Welsch told Teamster Magazine in September 2009.
While air transportation remains among the most heavily unionized industries in the country, Continental ramp agents were among the largest single group of non-union employees. Now they have made the nation’s fourth-largest airline a union shop from top to bottom. The airline’s pilots, flight attendants, mechanics, and now ground workers all have collective bargaining rights, giving them an advantage in recovering some of the lost ground over the last few years.
"Wages for the ramp workers start at about $10 an hour," said Chris Moore, chair of the Teamsters Aviation Mechanics Coalition, but only "about half work full time." After 10 years, lead agents earn a little more than $21 an hour, he said.
The lingering issue of low pay, combined with post-September 11, 2001 draconian layoffs, certainly increased union awareness among employees, but the achievements of the Teamster’s national strategy must also be recognized. The Teamsters organized 43,000 new members in 2008, affirmation of their strategy to train hundreds of dedicated rank-and-file members at organizer "boot camp."
Outrageous Railroad Labor Act
Probably the most outrageous anachronism in U.S. labor law is the 1926 Railroad Labor Act (RLA) regulation governing union elections for rail and airline workers. The rule states that the union must win the support of the majority of the total class and craft bargaining unit. This is unlike any other election in the United States, where the outcome is decided by a majority of those who actually cast a ballot and not on a majority of the total eligible electorate. To make it even worse, the bargaining unit includes those on layoff who are difficult to contact.
In 2008, the Transport Workers Union (TWU) won a clear majority of those voting, but lost the election for Continental ground workers because they fell short of this "super majority" requirement by 314 votes. The Machinists (IAMAW) union lost at Continental under the same circumstances a few years earlier. This time the Teamsters narrowly won their election, surpassing this threshold by 300 votes, though the 4,102 workers who voted for the union were an overwhelming majority of those voting.
Fortunately, the National Mediation Board (NMB), which administers RLA, has recommended changing the rule to a simple majority of those voting. Air and rail carriers are protesting, but labor is confident the NMB recommendations will prevail.
"We Took A Gamble"
It was a remarkable risk for the Teamsters to proceed with the Continental election under the old rules. "We took a gamble and it worked," said Teamster President James Hoffa. Other unions, such as the Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA) and the Machinists have postponed elections at Delta, for example, until the new rule change, which is expected to take effect in a few months.
Airline workers are only asking for the same rights as other voting Americans. With genuine majority rule elections, airline unions would have won every single contest in the past 20 years. Under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which covers non-RLA workers, union elections are still tainted by well-documented employer threats of recrimination, termination, and discrimination. The Employee Free Choice Act is needed to allow workers to indicate their choice of a union away from intimidating employer scrutiny.
Workers at Continental spoke for millions who desperately need collective bargaining rights. Modernizing and democratizing election rights, in both the RLA and NLRA, will greatly advance opportunities for working people to organize themselves and to express their demands and desires for a better life.