It's Too Hard to Get Rid of a Union
Unions are supposed to advocate for the welfare of the employees they represent. But what happens when a union fails to produce anything of value for its members?
Nearly 1,000 Allegiant Air flight attendants have been represented by the Transportation Workers Union for almost five years now. In that time, the TWU has failed to secure a contract, and the flight attendants have not received any pay or benefit increases. And since they are represented by a union, they cannot legally negotiate their contracts individually or through another representative.
Employees in this situation should have a clear and direct path toward ridding themselves of the union. Yet dispensing of a union can be a herculean task, as these workers are finding out. The Railway Labor Act (RLA) governs union elections in the railroad and airline industries, and it is implemented by the National Mediation Board (NMB). Under the current rules, Allegiant flight attendants have had to navigate a complicated maze as they attempt to free themselves from the TWU.
First, a majority of employees had to sign authorization cards for a "straw man" to represent them. (Procedurally speaking, this person acts as a rival union attempting to unseat the incumbent.) Once that was achieved, the elected representative had to file an application for "Investigation of Representational Dispute" with the NMB, which oversees elections.
However, an up-or-down vote on union representation isn't legally possible, because NMB rules require the ballot to contain four options: continued representation by the incumbent union, a write-in alternative union, the straw-man representative, and no union. If no option receives a majority of the votes, there is a runoff between the top two. But because there are two non-union options — the straw man (who will simply step down if elected) and an option explicitly labeled "no representative" — this system divides the opposition, and those aiming to decertify the union must coach their supporters to vote for one or the other.
At this point the NMB investigators are verifying the decertification cards, and the flight attendants are waiting to get a chance to vote in an election. But this is a needlessly complicated process. Instead, the RLA should be brought in line with the National Labor Relations Act — the law governing private-sector unionization outside of the railroad and airline industries — which offers workers an explicit route to decertification, in the form of a yes-or-no ballot on union representation.
It is within the power of the NMB to do this by itself, but it is extremely unlikely that the Democratic-majority board will take such a step. Congress or a future NMB will have to make the change.
Recent evidence shows ridding unwanted union representation has its benefits. After another group of Allegiant Air workers, the dispatchers, voted in April to decertify the International Brotherhood of Teamsters as their representative, they received pay raises of up to 70 percent and a $5,500 retention bonus.
If the airline's flight attendants similarly succeed and become free to represent themselves, this will be a major victory for worker rights. As for the unions, they just might consider the possibility that they would attract more members if they served workers better.
Trey Kovacs is a policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, where John McDonald is a research associate.