Delta and the Unions
An airline fights unionization.


When Delta merged with Northwest Airlines two and a half years ago, it set the stage for an epic Big Business–Big Labor battle. Northwest was heavily unionized, but at Delta, only the pilots and flight dispatchers belonged to labor organizations. A series of elections would determine whether Delta, which employs 75,000 people, would succumb to organized labor — or whether former Northwest employees would lose their representation.

The resulting confrontation — which is far from over, despite the conclusion of the final election Tuesday — highlights both the bizarre web of policies that govern how airline unions operate and the arbitrary power that a biased government agency can exercise over the unionization process. Following the merger, unions waited to call for a vote until the Obama administration had nominated two-thirds of the board that would oversee the elections; asked those appointees to change the election rules in their favor; delayed the elections so that they would take place under the new rules; lost anyway; and are now alleging “interference” on Delta’s part — allegations that the board can use to demand a new vote.

Unlike most other industries, airlines are governed by the Railway Labor Act (RLA) instead of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Passed in 1926, the RLA was designed to keep the nation’s railroad infrastructure operating by making organizing and striking difficult. Less than a decade later, Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt expanded it to cover airlines as well. Under the RLA, individual workplaces cannot organize; rather, entire “work groups” within a company (which for airlines means flight attendants, customer-service workers, pilots, etc.) must vote for representation.

The RLA also advantaged management when it came to union elections. Employees who didn’t vote counted as “no” votes because, according to the law, a union needed support from “the majority of any [work group] of employees,” not just a majority of those who voted.

The three-member National Mediation Board (NMB) has implemented the RLA since 1934. Its members are appointed to three-year terms by the U.S. president, with the stipulation that no more than two members can be from the same political party, and its decisions are almost always final. When Delta and Northwest merged in April 2008, George W. Bush had been president for close to eight years, so of course the NMB’s balance was 2–1 Republican. Since employers can’t call for representation elections, the unions had the option of waiting until the NMB’s composition was more favorable.

They did, and as if on cue, Obama rode a tidal wave of Big Labor donations into the White House. Two NMB seats quickly became available, one held by a Republican and the other by a Democrat. Obama renominated the Democrat, Harry R. Hoglander, and nominated Democrat Linda Puchala to replace the Republican. Both have close ties to Big Labor. Hoglander was once the executive vice president of the Air Line Pilots Association. Puchala’s previous jobs, according to her official bio, include “International President of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO, and Staff Director, Michigan State Employees Association, AFSCME, AFL-CIO.”

The appointments were finalized in mid-2009, and the unions finally called for elections for most of their work groups. But then, evidently, they got a better idea. In September 2009, they sent a letter to the NMB with an interesting proposal: The NMB could, by administrative fiat, change the election rules, requiring unions to get a majority of votes instead of a majority of employees.

The Obama appointees drafted the rule, handed it to the board’s Republican member, and gave her 24 hours to review it and draft a dissent before it was published in the Federal Register. That Republican, Elizabeth Dougherty, was not happy, as her dissent makes clear. Not to mention that the proposal called for a drastic shift away from a 75-year-old policy — and arguably violated the law, which requires a majority of “employees,” not of “votes.” But after a comment period and an unsuccessful lawsuit from the airline industry, the rule change went through. (All three NMB members declined comment.)