US airlines find themselves in the middle of a political maelstrom that could drastically alter long-standing methods used to conduct union representation elections at those carriers.

Late in 2009 at the behest of the AFL-CIO Transport Trades Department, two new representatives of the National Mediation Board appointed by the Obama administration hastily introduced a notice of proposed rulemaking to change election procedures. The NMB's main objective is to ensure labour stability in the air and rail industries. Under the proposed rule, airline and railroad workers could become unionised if a majority of workers participating in a vote endorse representation. It would reverse the long-held policy of requiring a majority of all affected workers electing to be represented by a union. Supporters of the rule say the new procedure also allows employees to explicitly cast a "no" vote against representation.

Airlines are critical of how the rule was introduced, claiming new board members Linda Puchlala and Harry Hoglander excluded chairman Elizabeth Dougherty from deliberations, and only gave her 90 minutes to review the proposed rulemaking before publication. Delta Air Lines argues the process raises serious concerns about NMB's good faith in introducing the proceedings. "All indications are that the members of the board majority have already made up their minds to proceed with the proposed change," it says.

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No US carrier will feel the brunt of the rule more than Delta, which is failing to realise the full benefits of its merger with Northwest Airlines as representation issues languish in the limbo created by the proposed rule change. Prior to the merger Delta was largely non-union while Northwest was heavily unionised. The Association of Flight Attendants and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers actively campaigned to organise roughly 50,000 employees at Delta, but withdrew their representation applications "virtually simultaneously with the board's issuance" of the proposed rules, says Delta. The carrier argues the unions apparently became convinced they could not win majority support under current election rules.

In the meantime, however, Delta points out AFA has been successful in two representation elections held under the current rules, including one at its regional subsidiary Compass Airlines. Delta argues it and its employees have now been singled out for discriminatory treatment, and that has prevented it from aligning pay, benefits and work rules for large groups of pre-merger Delta and Northwest employees.

A large portion of the argument put forth by the AFL-CIO TTD is the change is necessary to mirror how democratic elections are conducted for positions in political office. "No where in American democracy - other than during a union election in the airline and railroad industry - does an eligible voter wishing to sit out on an election have his or her silence tabulated as a no vote by virtue of non-participation," says TTD.

Delta though sees gaping holes in that rationale. "In an election for public office, the eligible voters have only themselves to blame if they fail to vote and those who do not vote elect a candidate who is not a capable public official," says Delta. "If weak unions or union officials could be elected by a minority of voters in a representation dispute in the transportation industry, however, the likelihood of labour instability and disruptions to commerce would be dramatically increased."

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If supporters of the change succeed in establishing a new voting precedent, airline managements face the challenge of holding contract negotiations with an organisation that might not hold majority support from the given employee group, says Jerrold Glass, president of F&H Solutions group and former human resources chief at US Airways. He also believes a change in how unions are organised also increases the risk of union raiding by making it easier for one union to replace another, further jeopardising labour stability.

Further confusing the issue are questions over whether NMB has the authority to reverse the current method. Board chairman Dougherty argues the proposed change "if appropriate", should be made by US Congress. Even if the board members seeking the change achieve success in mandating the new procedures, it is not clear how soon carriers will feel the effects. The Air Transport Association of America says it plans to seek legal action if the proposed rulemaking is enacted.

Yet Delta warns that "unions seem quite certain of the outcome of this proceeding. AFA's letter withdrawing its application at Delta made clear that they plan to re-file after the new rules become effective".

Source: Airline Business