09/09/2010 03:29 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Despite New Hailed Organizing Rules, Airline Workers Still Face Tilted Playing Field

Last May, the National Mediation Board (NMB), which governs labor relations in the airline and rail industries, approved a rule making it easier for unions to organize. Under the older rules, as we highlighted last May, "If a worker didn't vote in a union election, that person's "vote" was counted against the prospective union."

Last year, when CWA tried to organize the 3,000 gate and ramp workers of Piedmont Airlines, a subsidiary of US Airways' US Airways Express, workers faced exactly this problem. Not a single worker voted against the union, but the union still lost the election by 58 votes because only 49% of the total workers voted. Piedmont further stacked the deck against the union by adding to the potential voters list workers who could not vote because they were dead, didn't work at Piedmont anymore, or serving overseas in the armed forces.

So when the NMB decision came down, changing the rules so that only the workers who voted counted as a majority, it was hailed as a great victory for organized labor. "The new rules will help level the playing field for working people in the airline and rail industries," AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said.

CWA is now attempting to organize Piedmont Airlines under the new NMB rules--but they appear to have done little to level the playing field for workers in the airline and rail industries.

US Airways is determined not to see its Piedmont workers unionized. All of US Airways gate and ramp employees are currently unionized, with baggage handlers making $20 an hour. But baggage handlers at nonunionized work subsidiaries of US Airways Express, like Piedmont, make half of that.

With Piedmont unorganized, US Airways is able to shift its passengers and flights from unionized US Airways to one of its non-union subsidiaries; thus undermining and decreasing the need for unionized US Airways gate and ramp workers.

To avoid further unionization, US Airways has hired the notorious union busting firm LRI. LRI is such an effective union busting firm that it guarantees "a defeat of a union-organizing drive or your money back," as the AFL-CIO reported on its blog.

True to its word, LRI has quickly engaged in a scorched-earth campaign of intimidation and manipulation at Piedmont Airlines, according to CWA organizers. Workers are being forced into one-on-one intimidation meetings with their direct supervisors, where they are being told that voting for their union might mean layoffs, pay or healthcare decreases. Workers are also being illegaly threatened with the possibility of firings or suspension if they are seen publicly supporting the union, organizers say. One worker, a member of the union organizing campaign, was already suspended from his job for engaging in union organizing activity.

CWA organizer Tim Dubnau says that while the new NMB rules theoretically make it easier to organize, it is still very diffcult to organize Piedmont workers with US Airways's unionbusting activities going virtually unpunished.

Progressives spoke of the NMB decisions as a sign that President Obama was on their side and taking small steps to eliminate the problem of union busting. However, as long as the penalty for unionbusting in this country is that a company needs to post a piece of paper claiming they engaged in union busting, there will never be a level playing field for free and fair elections. As a union ogranizer once said to me, "If the penalty for robbing a bank was you had to post a piece of paper saying you robbed a bank, we'd all be bank robbers!"

Until Obama punishes unionbusters by doing things like barring companies that union bust from receiving federal contracts, workers will continue to be robbed of their right to a free and fair union election. Small steps like this NMB decision simply won't actually level the playing field.