RLA: A Duty to Unionize?

By Bill Wright

Aircraft service employees threatened to close Seattle’s airport. They were disgruntled about the suspension of a co-worker, and they banded together with a community organizer (not a union agent) to threaten a strike. The employer sought a federal injunction against a strike, arguing that, because the employees and employer were covered by the Railway Labor Act (“RLA”), the employees had a legal duty to bargain the dispute before trying to strike. The employer won, and prevented the strike. Now what?

According to the 9th Circuit, the RLA imposes a duty on all covered employees to make agreements concerning working conditions and to settle all disputes, while avoiding interruptions to the operation of a covered employer. Employees – even non-union employees – may not strike first and bargain later. Of course, under the RLA, the employees cannot make agreements or settle disputes individually with their employer. No, the employees have to appoint a representative to deal with the covered employer. Even if they do not join a union, the employees have to deal with the employer collectively. This leaves employees with a three tine fork in the road: give up the dispute, unionize, or break new ground by appointing a collective representation without the structure of a union. Aircraft Serv. Int’l., Inc. v. Int’l Bhd of Teamsters AFL CIO Local 117, No. 12-36026 (9th Cir. January 10, 2014).

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