Teamsters Victory at Continental Airlines Underscores Need to Reform RLA Union Elections Process

There are lots of colorful self-help gurus making a pretty good living preaching their gospel of new-age techniques that just might turn around even our worst failures. But the Teamsters Union February 12 election victory to represent 7600 ground workers at Continental Airlines shows that good old-fashioned hard work might be making a comeback.

“We’ve been through this five times, and I can say hands down that this is the best campaign, the strongest campaign we’ve had,” Gary Welsch accurately predicted to Teamster Magazine several months before the election in September 2009.

While air transportation remains among the most heavily unionized industries in the country, Continental ramp agents were also among the largest single group of non-union employees. Now they have made the nation’s fourth-largest airline a union shop from top to bottom. The airline’s pilots, flight attendants, mechanics and now ground workers all have collective bargaining rights, giving them an advantage in recovering some of the ground they’ve lost over the last few years.

“Wages for the ramp workers start at about $10 an hour,” said Chris Moore, chairman of the Teamsters Aviation Mechanics Coalition, but only “about half work full time.” After 10 years, lead agents earn a little more than $21 an hour, he said.

The lingering issue of low pay combined with the post-9/11 cuts in service, dramatic reductions of routes and draconian layoffs certainly increased union awareness among airline employees, but the achievements of the union’s national strategy must also be recognized.

For the Teamsters, who organized 43,000 new members in 2008, it is affirmation of their strategy that relies heavily on hundreds of trained and dedicated rank and file members who attend an “Organizers’ Bootcamp” where they learn the skills to participate in recruiting workers to the union.

Probably the most outrageous anachronism in U.S. labor law is the 1926 Railroad Labor Act (RLA) regulation governing union elections for rail and airline workers. The rule states that the union must win the support of the majority of workers in the bargaining unit. This is unlike every other election in the United States where the outcome is decided by a majority of those who actually cast a ballot and not on a majority of the total eligible electorate. To make it even worse, the bargaining unit includes those on layoff who are, of course, difficult to contact. In effect, those not voting out of apathy or because they could not be reached, are counted as “No” votes.

The Transport Workers Union (TWU) won a clear majority of those voting but lost the election for Continental ground workers in 2008 because they fell short of this “super majority” requirement by 314 votes. The Machinists (IAMAW) union lost at Continental under the same circumstances a few years earlier.

The Teamsters narrowly won their election by surpassing this threshold by only 300 votes, though the 4, 102 workers who voted for the union were an overwhelming majority of those voting.

Fortunately, the National Mediation Board (NMB), which administers the RLA, has recommended changing the rule to a simple majority of those voting. Of course, air and rail carriers are protesting but labor is very confident the NMB recommendation will ultimately prevail.

It was a remarkable risk for the Teamsters to proceed with the Continental election under the old rules. They were very confident of their support. Other unions, such as the Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA) and the Machinists have postponed pending elections at airlines until the new rule change is expected to take effect in a few months.

Under the RLA, workers are only asking for the same rights as other voting Americans. With genuine majority-rule elections, airline unions would have won every single contest in the past twenty years.

Under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which covers non-RLA workers, union elections are tainted by well-documented employer threats of recrimination, termination and discrimination. The Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) would allow workers to indicate their choice of a union away from intimidating employer scrutiny.

Workers at Continental spoke for millions who so desperately need collective bargaining rights. Modernizing and democratizing election rights, in both the RLA and NLRA, will greatly advance opportunities for working people to organize themselves and to express their demands and desires for a better life.