WASHINGTON - In a major victory for organized labor, unions will have an easier time signing up airline and railroad workers after the Obama Administration yesterday changed a 76-year-old rule on union elections.
The change is the most significant so far in a string of White House moves to boost unions, which are struggling to reverse years of decline in membership.
The new rule, announced by the National Mediation Board, would recognize a union if a simple majority of workers who cast ballots approve organizing.
The previous rule required a majority of the entire work force to favor unionizing. That meant workers choosing not to vote at all were effectively counted as "no" votes.
Airlines that fought the change say it will lead to more labor disputes and increase delays in an industry already reeling from recession, higher fuel costs, and stepped-up security measures.
The most immediate impact of the change would be at Delta Air Lines, where unions are trying to organize about 20,000 flight attendants. Unions are also expected to target workers at smaller carriers, including Allegiant Air, JetBlue Airways, Republic Airways, and SkyWest.
"We applaud the [National Mediation Board] for taking this historic and courageous step to bring democracy to union elections," said Patricia Friend, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. But the Air Transport Association, which represents most major airlines, is expected to file a lawsuit challenging the new rule.
"It is quite clear to us that the NMB was determined to proceed despite the proposed rule's substantive and procedural flaws, leaving us no choice but to seek judicial review," the industry group said in a statement.
Airlines and railroads employ more than 500,000 workers, and about two-thirds of those are already in unions. That's much higher than the overall union membership rate of 12 percent.