By John Crawley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court on Friday upheld a hotly contested change in federal labor law that can make it easier for unions to organize, potentially clearing the way for Congress to approve long-delayed aviation legislation.
Rejecting a challenge to the new policy by the biggest airlines, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed a lower court decision, by a 2-1 margin.
In a reversal last year of long-standing policy, the National Mediation Board (NMB) determined that the outcome of union representation elections could be decided by a majority of those actually voting, meaning unions need fewer people to succeed. Previous NMB policy had required unions to count non-voters as voting "no."
"This is about a fair principle. It doesn't stop people from voting," said Ed Wytkind, president of the Transportation Trades division of the AFL-CIO, adding that the airlines' argument "clearly is not a valid legal challenge and now has been thrown out twice."
A federal district judge in Washington ruled for the unions in June 2010, rejecting airline claims that the change was arbitrary and could unfairly permit the adoption of a union with a minority of votes cast.
David Berg, general counsel for the trade group that brought the initial suit and lodged the appeal, said that airlines still believe the policy is flawed. But industry signaled its desire for the political controversy over aviation legislation to recede.
"We are hopeful that Congress can now move forward with a much-needed, long-term (Federal Aviation Administration) reauthorization bill," Berg said.
The airline industry is heavily unionized and the new rule has been tested most prominently in representation drives at mostly non-union Delta Air Lines. Unions have lost four elections held so far to resolve labor issues following the 2008 merger of Delta and Northwest.
Unions would also like to organize workers at JetBlue Airlines.
Airline industry allies in Congress, particularly those of Delta, sought to overturn the rule - which also affects railroad
elections - and won backing for their position in the Republican-led House version of the FAA bill, drawing a White House veto threat.
The version of that legislation in the Democratic-controlled Senate does not contain the union language, creating a conflict that remains the lone major issue holding up final passage.
There was no immediate sense on Capitol Hill of what the ruling's impact might be on the bill, although the apparent end of the case coupled with industry's call for passage of the FAA bill create a clear opening for lawmakers to put the issue to rest.
The legislation would establish a multiyear policy and funding blueprint for aviation priorities, including the next steps in upgrading the nation's air traffic network to a satellite-based system and laying out a more predictable FAA operating budget.
The U.S. Court of Appeals Case is the Air Transport Association of America v National Mediation Board. No. 10-5253.
(Reporting By John Crawley; Editing by Gary Hill)