Election Date Set, But American Airlines Files with Supreme Court
November 12, 2012
By Marc Bussanich
Nearly 1,000 passenger service agents who work for American Airlines have been trying to organize a union since 1997. They almost won recognition in 1998, but the airline has resisted unionization with legal challenges and gimmicks. The agents remained resilient, however, and after two postponed elections, the agents will be voting in December to determine representation by the Communication Workers of America.
The employees work as reservation agents, airport customer service reps and skycaps. The majority of them work from home, which allows them to avoid long commutes. Since American launched the home-based program in 2005, however, there’s been no shortage of issues confronting the home-based agents.
“The agents work in 65 different locations from San Juan to Seattle; they pay for all the overhead such as phone and Internet service without reimbursement, while earning low pay with no benefits, sick time, paid time off or vacation time,” said Sandy Rusher, a CWA organizing director.
In December 2011, the CWA requested the National Mediation Board, the federal agency that administers the Railroad Labor Act, to hold a representation election. At the time, 35 percent of eligible voters were required to sign signature cards. But in February Congress passed a law requiring a 50 percent “show of interest.”
The NMB granted the CWA’s request and scheduled the election for April. But American quickly challenged the NMB by filing a lawsuit in a U.S. District Court to argue that the new law should prompt the election, not the 35 percent threshold. The court agreed.
In turn, the NMB appealed to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to argue that the 35 percent threshold was in effect when the CWA petitioned for an election. The court ruled in favor of the NMB and vacated the district court’s ruling.
The NMB then rescheduled a new election date, but American continued to impede the election process. Rusher noted that the company is required by law to hand over mailing labels based on the names and addresses of eligible voters. But the company refused.
“We informed the board that we’d provide the mailing labels if American was determined to impede the election,” said Rusher.
She noted the union only acquired the names of eligible voters after an arduous process of verifying them. Apparently, the company submitted a list that contained names of people who no longer worked for the company and some who were deceased.
“There were the names of employees who used to work in reservation offices that had since closed. Many of these workers didn’t find other opportunities within the company, but American insisted they would be recalled because it has a ten-year recall policy and therefore are eligible to vote,” Rusher said.
“Some people had passed away, and American claimed it had no way of knowing that information. We had to spend a lot of time collecting death certificates to prove those who passed away should be removed from the eligibility list.”
The agents have a strong incentive to organize not just to improve their economic condition, but also to win a seat on the creditors’ committee that provides input on American’s bankruptcy proceedings.
“American’s entire workforce of ramp workers, flight attendants and pilots is represented by unions with the exception of the agents. The other unions have a voice on how American restructures, but the agents do not.”
As of this writing, in a filing with the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, American Airlines plans to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the decision that permits the nearly 10,000 agents to vote for representation.
An excerpt of the filing indicates that American doesn’t want the election to proceed because even if the CWA were to lose, it fears an election would sour relations with its employees.
“Allowing the illegal CWA representation to proceed, only to later be vacated by the Supreme Court, will cause enormous harm to American’s relations with its employees, in general, and with its Passenger Service Employees, more specifically.”
And if the CWA were to win, “American would be faced with a dilemma—(a) refuse to bargain with a union elected illegitimately and risk a strike that could severely cripple American at a time when the carrier already is under Chapter 11 protection, or (b) negotiate for a putative collective bargaining agreement with a union that may not legitimately represent American’s employees…”