Union vote rule change vexes Delta

A proposed change in the rules for union representation elections at airlines is adding tension to expected union votes at Delta Air Lines in the wake of its merger with Northwest Airlines.

The National Mediation Board, which governs airline and railroad labor relations, wants to require that unions win a majority of votes only from those workers who cast ballots, rather than from a majority of all those eligible to vote. That could reduce the number of votes needed for a union to win.

The board will formally publish the proposed rule Tuesday and take comments on the matter for 60 days.

Both the substance and timing of the proposal add intrigue to the union question at Delta as it tries to resolve representation issues created by its merger with Northwest.

Delta's flight attendants and ground workers are non-union and Northwest's are unionized, so those worker groups must eventually vote to decide which way to go. Delta executives say they want to move forward with votes and had hoped to be done with elections months ago.

The Association of Flight Attendants has filed for an election at Delta, but the Mediation Board has not yet scheduled one. Now it's unclear whether the Mediation Board will go forward with the flight attendants union election process or wait for the outcome of the rule change.

The International Association of Machinists, which represents ground workers from Northwest, last week withdrew an application for representation elections among baggage handlers at Delta. Machinists spokesman Joe Tiberi said the mediation board's proposed rule-change was "absolutely not" a factor in its withdrawal, adding it stemmed from a continuing dispute over which workers would be represented.

But Delta called the IAM's move "repugnant"  and suggested the union is stalling until the rule change takes effect to boost its chances of winning.

Delta chief executive Richard Anderson has spoken out against the rule change. He has also questioned whether the mediation board has the authority to make the change, and he's raised the possibility of legal action.

The rule change proposal has also taken on political overtones because of a recent shift in the makeup of the three-member National Mediation Board. It now includes two former labor union leaders, including one nominated by the Obama administration this year.

The proposed change, widely seen as a boost to union organizers, has drawn attention in Congress, with Republicans lining up in opposition. They include Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), who on Monday said the Mediation Board does not have the authority to make the change without Congressional authorization.

"I will use all available tools at my disposal, including the Congressional Review Act option, to see that this assault on employee rights does not stand," he said.

The rule change was proposed to the NMB by the AFL-CIO's Transportation Trades Department earlier this year. Edward Wytkind, president of the union federation's department, called the existing election procedures "not only unfair but undemocratic."

The Mediation Board said it believes the change would provide a more reliable indicator of employee sentiment. It also said the current rules were adopted in an era when "widespread company unionism undermined collective bargaining and incited labor unrest," and that labor relations in air and rail have progressed since then.

But Mediation Board Elizabeth Dougherty, a former Bush administration member and the only member without labor ties, has issued a strong dissent and cited the board's duty to maintain stability in the air and rail industries.

Making the change "would be an unprecedented event in the history of the NMB," Dougherty wrote in her dissent.

"Regardless of the composition of the board or the inhabitant of the White House," she said, "this independent agency has never been in the business of making controversial, one-sided rule changes at the behest of only labor or management."