Holding American Workers Hostage to Stop Unions

Conservatives May Seize on Airport Funding Once Again

Donna Cooper calls out those in Congress who would jettison 74,000 jobs to stop common sense union reforms via unrelated legislation.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), left, talks with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) as they leave a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, August 1, 2011. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), left, talks with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) as they leave a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, August 1, 2011. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

The August shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration was a stunning example of how the House leadership team of Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH), House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), and House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica (R-FL) cares not at all about the everyday needs of American workers. They put 74,000 Americans out of work for one week in service of their failed attempt to extract Senate agreement on antidemocratic and antiunion provisions in the temporary extension of the Federal Aviation Authorization bill.

Now they are set to do it all over again. The last time around, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood pulled a rabbit out of his hat in August after the shutdown to get the bill extended, but only for 30 days. That means this fight is not over. The 21st temporary extension of the bill expires on September 16. Instead of governing by brinksmanship, House leaders should put jobs first and pass a reauthorization bill without the odious antiunion and antidemocratic provisions that caused this standoff in the first place.

After all, jobs have nothing to do with the House leadership tactics. At the root of this conflict is the method of counting votes in union elections for railroad and airline workers. According to Secretary LaHood, “The provisions the Republicans were demanding weren’t in any of the other 20 extensions passed since 2007. They didn’t need to be in 21st extension.” He should know since he served as a member of the House Republican caucus for 14 years before taking the helm of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Yet the House Republican leadership last month dug in its heels, demanding legislation that counts the votes of voters who never show for union elections to form a union. Not only do they want to count votes never cast but they want these ghost votes to be recorded as votes against forming the union. Advocates for this “absence equals opposition” method of vote counting argue that counting only votes cast makes forming unions too easy.

This issue is on the table because in 2010 the National Labor Relations Board adopted a new rule that permits elections to be determined by a majority of votes cast. Opponents of the new rule point to the March 28 union election at AirTran Airways, where the employees agreed to join the Machinist union. The union was formed based on 994 “yes” votes to 870 “no” votes and slightly more than 900 workers who chose not to vote at all.

The House Republicans shut down the FAA because, in their view, 1,900 of the workers voted against the union. That math only makes sense if somehow the position of the nonvoters is known, and if you suspend any adherence to commonly accepted voting procedures. Since it’s impossible to read the minds of those who didn’t vote, House Transportation Committee Chairman Mica is going to make up their minds for them by passing federal legislation to require nonvoters be considered voters, and that their votes be counted as against the formation of the union.

Let’s walk through the problems in this vote-counting strategy favored by the House Republicans. First, it assumes there are no practical reasons for missing a union election. If Rep. Mica has his way, any person who misses the election due to an illness, planned vacation, family emergency, or hours at a second job will have his or her noncast vote counted as a vote against the union.

Second, some workers don’t participate in union elections out of real or rumored intimidation by the employer or management. These workers may favor a union, but because they may fear for their job, their noncast vote is counted against the union.

There is of course a third reason that some workers might not show up for an election to form a union. They may not understand what is at stake, or care. Sadly, that’s why most of the American electorate fails to participate in elections for public office. If Rep. Mica’s election theory were applied to our political elections, his own reelection would clearly be at risk.

Ironically, the AirTran election turnout was extraordinary. The 68 percent voter participation rate in that union election was dramatically higher than the rate of voter participation in the historic Obama election (56 percent) or every federal election held since 1960.

Clearly, principles of election fairness are not at issue since even Rep. Mica isn’t suggesting the same approach be used in political elections. Instead, he shut off FAA funding to please a few railroads and airlines, such as Delta Airlines, where employees are not yet represented by unions. To serve these very narrow interests, the House Republicans forced more than 74,000 Americans out of work for a week, most of whom were workers engaged in construction at major and minor airports across America.

For this, Reps. Boehner, Cantor, and Mica are putting 74,000 Americans out of work? Even the Associated General Contractors of America, a group that represents the interests of companies and management, not unions, found fault with Rep. Mica’s strategy. “No doubt there are important policy questions that need to be resolved with the aviation legislation,” argues Stephen E. Sandherr, the association’s chief executive officer. “But construction workers shouldn’t have to suffer because Washington hasn’t figured out a way to work out its differences.”

Let’s hope House Republicans learn from their aborted hijacking of the FAA bill that it’s better to work on bills that create jobs rather than grandstand for bills that eliminate them.

Donna Cooper is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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Donna Cooper

Senior Fellow