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Rules for union elections at airlines questioned

ATLANTA – Lawmakers on Wednesday questioned National Mediation Board rules that they believe make it difficult for air and rail carrier employees to unionize, and the head of a flight attendants union said the challenge has been exacerbated by management interference at Delta Air Lines Inc.

The comments and testimony came during a hearing in Washington before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

The purpose of the hearing was to discuss NMB oversight of elections for union representation.

“The deck is in a sort of way stacked against unionization,” said Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the committee.

In particular, he said he was concerned about long-standing NMB rules that require that a majority of employees eligible to vote for unionization participate for the election to be certified. Those who don’t vote are counted as ‘No’ votes, according to NMB rules.

“That’s a very high bar for a union to organize workers in the context of the Railway Labor Act,” Oberstar said.

Oberstar noted that in public elections the requirement is generally that a majority of votes cast be in favor of a candidate for the person to be elected. Those who don’t vote are not counted one way or the other.

He also questioned the fact that under certain circumstances the NMB considers furloughed, or inactive employees, to be eligible voters for union elections at airlines and railroads.

Read Van de Water, chairman of the National Mediation Board, testified at the hearing that the NMB rules have been in place for decades and that the board has worked hard to preserve the rights of workers to form unions if they choose. She said the NMB allows telephone and Internet voting, which has increased participation.

“The NMB is committed to employee choice on representation matters,” Van de Water said.

She also defended the NMB rules regarding the participation requirement for union elections to be certified.

“I think it’s worked very well,” Van de Water said. “I think it’s fair.”

But Patricia Friend, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, testified that the NMB has failed to sanction management at Atlanta-based Delta for waging an “intensive anti-union campaign” that interfered with union elections among the carrier’s flight attendants in 2001 and earlier this year.

“It’s time to return the practices of this board to its stated mission,” Friend said.

Delta spokeswoman Betsy Talton said in a statement Wednesday that Delta respects its employees’ right to decide if union representation is right for them.

“The AFA’s unfounded allegations of interference are currently pending before the NMB,” Talton said. “Both Delta and AFA submitted their positions on the record. We believe the AFA should respect the regulatory process — their obvious attempts to circumvent that process are inappropriate.”

In May, Delta’s flight attendants failed to get the necessary votes to form a union. Not enough of the eligible flight attendants voted, and therefore the results, despite showing overwhelming support for the AFA from those who did vote, did not meet the certification requirements of the NMB.

A similar effort in late 2001 was rejected in election results announced on Feb. 1, 2002.

Delta flight attendants could get another shot at unionization after the completion of the carrier’s acquisition of Eagan, Minn.-based Northwest Airlines Corp. later this year.

Northwest’s 8,000 flight attendants are members of the AFA-CWA. Federal rules call for an automatic union election if at least 35 percent of the combined group is already represented by a union, which it would be in this case. Northwest flight attendants would still be covered by the union after the combination at least until another election.

More than 55,000 flight attendants at 20 airlines are members of the AFA-CWA. The AFA is part of the 700,000-member Communications Workers of America.

Delta’s pilots remain the only major work group at the carrier to be members of a union.

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