Court Slaps Down Airport Worker Strike Ban

Rahwa Habte of the immigrant rights group OneAmerica spoke to the media before she, ministers, and SeaTac airport fuelers delivered a strike notice to ASIG management in 2012. The employer ran to court for an injunction to block the strike—but a new appeals court ruling says airport employers have to negotiate first. Photo: Working Washington.

Low-wage airport workers have regained an important tool: the right to go on strike.

On March 10 the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals tossed out a federal court injunction that had practically barred aircraft fuelers, baggage handlers, and cabin cleaners, among others, from striking to protest unfair working conditions.

The ruling gives airport workers a new lever. If their bosses refuse to negotiate, workers can back up their demands by threatening to walk out, and airline industry bosses can’t just run to court and get an injunction. They’ll have to negotiate.

The ruling doesn’t ban strike injunctions, but it does require employers to negotiate with workers before going to court—even workers who haven’t yet secured union recognition. [Note: the author was a named defendant in the federal injunction.]

SKEWED FEDERAL RULES

For decades, workers in the airline industry—particularly those in the burgeoning sector of contracted-out “ground services” work, such as hefting bags and refueling planes—have been plagued by a federal labor law designed to thwart worker power.

Airport workers are covered by the 1926 Railway Labor Act, a law explicitly aimed at preventing industrial action. It set up an elaborate system of dispute resolution that had to be exhausted before workers could legally strike. Congress added the fledgling passenger-airline industry to the RLA in 1936.

The RLA also specified that workers had to organize nationally by craft; an employer couldn’t be forced to recognize a local group of workers. This meant that pilots and flight attendants could call for union recognition only when they organized a majority of their co-workers around the country who worked for the same airline.

The legal theory was that these workers shared a “community of interest” because they did the same jobs for the same company and interacted with one another, even though they might be based in different cities.

In recent decades, however, most airlines have contracted out a significant amount of work—including cabin cleaning, aircraft fueling, baggage handling, wheelchair attendants, passenger services—to multimillion-dollar contract firms that typically pay poverty wages.

Unlike pilots and flight attendants, these low-wage workers of course don’t travel between airports, so the RLA provisions on national bargaining units make no practical sense.

Yet when minimum-wage cabin cleaners at SeaTac Airport near Seattle, Washington, demanded union recognition and negotiations in 2013, their employer, a subsidiary of Delta Airlines, responded that it was under no obligation to recognize their union. Under the law, the company’s attorney reasoned, workers would first have to organize 10,000 cabin cleaners at 132 airports around the country.

CATCH-22

A year before that, in 2012, SeaTac’s aircraft fuelers began protesting unsafe working conditions. Fuel trucks had faulty brakes, windows that fogged up in the rain, and gearshifts held together with duct tape. Fuel hoses and nozzles leaked. Ladders were broken. Gloves, glasses, and other protective gear were defective.

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When the workers brought their complaints to managers of ASIG, the multibillion-dollar airline contractor, the company started harassing them. One of the more vocal workers, Alex Popescu, was suspended.

Workers called for negotiations with the company. They weren’t seeking formal union recognition, because the RLA didn’t support that, but they wanted to discuss the unsafe conditions and Popescu’s suspension. They backed up their demand with a strike vote.

Local ministers and community supporters joined a delegation of fuelers to deliver a strike notice to ASIG’s SeaTac office. The company locked the door on the workers and dispatched its lawyers to rush into federal court—claiming that a strike by 50 SeaTac fuelers would harm passenger air service nationally.

ASIG secured a broad federal injunction against any collective action. The judge, a George W. Bush appointee, accepted the company’s argument that workers must first follow the RLA’s tortuously long dispute-resolution process—conveniently ignoring the fact that the company had already refused to participate in that process because the fuelers weren’t a national bargaining unit.

This Kafkaesque ruling stripped the SeaTac fuelers of their basic rights. They could neither demand negotiations under the law nor take collective action on their own.

More than two years later, an 11-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit has thrown out the lower court’s injunction and affirmed that employers have a duty to negotiate with airport workers first, before seeking a strike injunction.

STRIKES: STILL SCARY

Courts move notoriously slowly, and this decision won’t provide immediate justice to the SeaTac fuelers. But it’s a significant advance for workers’ rights.

How much does the ruling matter? It comes at a time of debate within the union movement about the effectiveness of traditional tactics. Some argue that direct challenges to employers are outdated, and that strikes just don’t pack much punch anymore.

But the most ardent defenders of corporate power say otherwise. In a scathing dissent to the decision, four of the Circuit Court’s 11 judges argue that airport strikes, even by small groups of workers, should be banned because they could paralyze transportation nationally. They implore their colleagues to remember the 1934 longshore strike, which “effectively closed the port of Seattle and every other major port on the West Coast.”

Lumber mills closed too; businesses lost hundreds of millions of dollars. Two weeks into the strike, the judges report with alarm, “the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce estimated that the city had only 10 more days’ supply of eggs, butter and flour.”

This was 80 years ago, yet they’re trembling in their robes! These judges fully recognize the power of collective action—back then and today. The question is whether airport workers and the organizations that support them will draw the same conclusion and consider how to use the recovered strike tool.

Jonathan Rosenblum is a union and community organizer in Seattle. From 2011 to 2014 he was director of the SeaTac Airport workers organizing campaign for Working Washington, a coalition of civil rights groups, people of faith, and labor. He can be reached at jonathanr4212[at]gmail[dot]com.