After a yearlong fight, House Republicans land a blow against the politicized National Mediation Board (NMB). After assuming office in 2009, President Obama appointed two pro-union members to the three member NMB, the federal agency that oversees union-employer relations in the transportation industry. Effectively controlling the board, Obama’s Democrat appointees rewrote long-held election law to make it easier for unions to organize transportation workers. While the National Labor Relations Board’s nefarious activity has received much publicity, Obama’s regulatory overreach began with the NMB.
Since the National Railway Act’s was ratified in 1926, a union needed to receive a majority of votes from a working group in order for those workers to be unionized. After Obama’s appointees rewrote the rules with a 2010 rulemaking, unions were only required to receive a majority of all voting members’ votes. This unprecedented rulemaking threatened to disenfranchise workers and was a blatant attempt to inflate union membership numbers, and union dues.
Recognizing how problematic the NMB rulemaking was, Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) inserted a provision (Title IX) into the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill that overturned the NMB rule. During debate of Mica’s bill, Republican Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio) joined Democrats and offered an amendment to strip Chairman Mica’s provision out of the bill. LaTourette failed, but his move highlighted how difficult it would be to get FAA authorization across the finish line, especially with Democrats controlling the Senate and White House.
After the Senate passed their predictably bad FAA authorization legislation, the House and Senate conferenced to try and work out the differences between their two pieces of legislation. And there were plenty, but the most contentious deviation was Mica’s NMB provision. Stopgap measures were passed to keep the FAA funded and give House Leadership time to negotiate with Sen. Rockefeller.
After months of contentious debate, the House and Senate agreed to final NMB language—last week both Chambers passed FAA authorization. While it would have been impossible to get Sen. Rockefeller to swallow the provision that overturned the NMB’s pro-union rulemaking, Boehner extracted tangible victories for conservatives.
Raising the showing of interest threshold, a union must now file a petition with 50 percent of the eligible workers signaling support for the union in order to hold an election. All substantive NMB rulemakings will require a public hearing, a commonsense initiative that Democrats adamantly opposed. Further revealing the NMB’s sausage making process, the Government Accountability Office will conduct and audit every two years and provide a report on union certification procedures. After learning of the deal, 18 transportation unions sent a critical letter to Senate Democrats and ultimately urged them to reject the deal.
These measures are huge steps in the right direction. For decades Republicans dare not touch the Railway Labor Act for fear of angering the transportation unions. But there is still work to be done. The Railway Labor Act remains one of the most problematic, bias pieces of law in existence. It is nearly impossible for workers to decertify a union; no working group of more than 400 members has ever successfully eliminated union representation in the transportation sector.
This explains why the railway and airline industries are so heavily unionized—60 percent of airline workers and 84 percent of railroad employees are unionized. Compare those numbers to the 7 percent of total private sector workers that are unionized and you know something is awry. With no chance of decertification, unions can essentially do whatever they please—their members have nowhere to go. Further compounding workers’ problems, Right-to-Work laws do not apply to airline and transportation employees so workers either pay union dues or lose their job. Unable to negotiate specific contractual preferences, transportation workers are subject to whatever deal the union hands them.
It will take years of incremental victories, public awareness campaigns, and a Republican controlled Congress and President to rewrite the deeply flawed National Railway Act. Until then, Mica and Boehner’s negotiations have stopped the bleeding and given conservatives their first NMB victory in decades.
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