THE BLOG

Time to Change the Game for Airline and Railroad Workers

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Edward Wytkind President of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO

The deck is stacked against airline and railroad workers when it comes to union elections. That's why airline CEOs are working so hard to defend current election procedures that count all workers who sit out elections as "no" votes.

Americans are accustomed to elections where a simple majority of those voting decides the outcome -- whether they're voting for PTA president or U.S. Senator. Not so for airline and railroad workers -- who must first ensure that turnout exceeds 50 percent. How can we justify imposing higher turnout standards on airline and railroad union elections than we do in elections for the highest office of our land? We can't.

Let's take a moment to consider typical voter turnout data. The 2008 presidential election had the highest turnout in decades; nearly 57 percent of this country's eligible voters participated. While our presidential elections manage to draw just over half the country's eligible voters, mid-term elections bring out less than 40 percent. In fact, in every mid-term election since 1930 the national turnout was below 50 percent. What happens to eligible voters who choose not to vote in our local and national elections? The answer, of course, is that they do not factor into the election outcome.

The "majority rules" concept for elections is grounded in American democratic principles. But what if we arbitrarily assigned meaning to a voter who doesn't participate? Imagine if not voting was tabulated as a vote for or against something, such as "every non-vote counts as a vote for Obama," or conversely, "every non-voter must have intended to vote for McCain." Not only would this policy significantly skew election results, but it would nullify the expressed intent and incite outrage among those who actually voted.

Although it defies logic, this is the system aviation and rail workers must abide by for union elections. It makes no sense, and it is well beyond time for a change. That's why the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO has asked the National Mediation Board (NMB), the federal agency that oversees these matters, to reform its election procedures to conform to the norms of American democracy: the majority of those casting a vote will decide the outcome and those who do not vote are not counted.

Think about this. Even when more than 90 percent of those who vote choose a union, they are routinely denied representation by those who didn't vote. It's a "veto by silence" principle at work. Other than airline CEOs and their lobbyists, no one else can defend this system. I wonder if some of the U.S. Senators who are carrying the airline industry's water would support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution or to the election law in their state that forces them to face the voters under such onerous rules? I doubt it because in most of their elections, they would have lost.

Unionization in the airline industry has slowed in recent years. Why? Union-busting campaigns are alive and well -- because the current election policy encourages and rewards employer-run voter suppression campaigns. For example, almost 100 percent of Delta flight attendants voted in favor of unionization in 2008. But thanks to Delta's campaign to discourage its employees from voting (the company called it "Give a Rip" and was essentially instructing employees to destroy government-issued ballots), turnout was below 50 percent and the overwhelming support for a union was nullified. Shockingly, the Bush NMB saw no evil in Delta's unlawful conduct and voted 2-1 to refuse to even investigate more than 100 charges of illegal interference and coercion.

Some call our request for fairness an effort to circumvent the law. Nice try. The law does not require that elections be run this way at all. Voting procedures are set by the NMB, which has the authority to change its policies. In fact, the Supreme Court has said that the law does not require a majority of the entire workforce to vote in union elections for results to be valid.

Airline management is arguing against our request, insisting that "the rules are being changed in the middle of the game" because some union elections may get scheduled on some future date. But there are always going to be potential or expected union elections. For the airlines, it will never be a convenient time to change a status quo that favors them so heavily. But for the workers, who have been facing an unfair standard for decades, change cannot come soon enough.

It's time to let those who actually come out and vote decide the outcome of union elections in the airline and railroad industries. The airlines are essentially arguing against a voting system that has been the law of the land for more than 200 years in American democracy.