7:46am

Mon June 27, 2011
Opinion

Weekly Standard: Unionized States Of America?

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.

How far will President Obama go to advance the interests of organized labor? Awfully far. We know this not only from the effort to keep Boeing from building a plane in a right-to-work state, South Carolina, but also from the way Delta Airlines is being railroaded into recognizing unions its employees have repeatedly rejected.

In June alone, the Obama administration adopted rules likely to discourage employers from hiring law firms that specialize in thwarting union organizing drives, and moved to shorten union certification campaigns, long a goal of organized labor.

But the targeting of Delta stands out. Following Delta's merger with Northwest Airlines in 2008, its flight attendants voted against joining the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), and other employees decided against signing on with four separate unions of the International Association of Machinists and Aero-space Workers (IAM).

That didn't end what has become a union crusade against Delta, abetted by Obama. Now, from all appearances, the fix is in — against Delta. It starts with the National Mediation Board, which governs labor relations in the airline and railroad industries. Obama stacked the NMB deck by putting two former union senior executives on the three-member board, Linda Puchala of the AFA and Harry Hoglander of the Air Line Pilots.

That tilted the board sharply against Delta. At the urging of the AFL-CIO, the NMB changed the rule for airline and railroad union elections. For 75 years, a majority of the entire cohort of workers was required in a vote to unionize. The board reduced it to a majority of those voting.

And the two unions were tipped the change was imminent. They had filed for elections under the old rule. Then, just before the NMB's decision, they withdrew those requests, only to reinstate them later in order to have the more union-friendly new rule apply to the Delta elections.

The unions lost anyway. In the case of the flight attendants, it was the third time they had voted against the AFA. But the AFA and the IAM have doggedly refused to take "no" for an answer.

There are three reasons for their persistence. First, the vote was an embarrassing defeat for organized labor, already shrunken to the point of representing only 6.9 percent of the private sector workforce. Union leaders were unwilling to give up on what has been, at Delta, the biggest organizing drive since 70,000 workers at Ford Motor Company were unionized in 1941.

Second, 17,000 Northwest employees, inherited in the merger, had been union members. But they will become nonunion if the rejection of unionization by Delta employees is certified by the NMB. (Delta pilots have been union members for years.)

Third — and most important — the unions know they now have an indispensable ally, the pro-union majority on the National Mediation Board. To take advantage of this, both the AFA and IAM have accused Delta of illegally interfering in the union elections and asked the board to overturn the results and order a new election.

The board took the first step in June when it announced it would investigate whether Delta had acted improperly in opposing the unions. Should it decide Delta had, the NMB would call for still another election.

This could go on and on. Unions routinely accuse employers of using coercive tactics in elections, insist employees were denied a free choice, and demand a new round of voting. The AFA and IAM are counting on the board to go along.

The unions haven't made it easy for the NMB. Their formal complaints make an exceptionally weak case. Their argument boils down to the fact that Delta vigorously opposed unionization and made the case that both the airline and employees would be better off without the unions. Nothing illegal about that.

The unions argue that Delta went beyond simple opposition and committed "gross interference." But their detailed complaints are flimsy, some of them downright absurd.

The first offense cited in the IAM complaint was that Delta told employees they "must vote." Indeed they must, Delta said, if they want to vote against the union. This was to distinguish the old rule, under which employees not voting were counted as having voted "no," from the new rule in which only an actual "no" vote will count, the airline said.

That wasn't the only allegedly wrongful conduct the IAM cited on this issue. Delta CEO Richard Anderson, in an audio message to employees, "sounded very militaristic," the IAM said. Maybe so, but it's not illegal either.

This was another IAM objection: "Delta engaged in a massive and omnipresent anti-IAM campaign designed to so overwhelm employees that their free choice was suppressed." Is the IAM oblivious to how stupid and impressionable this makes Delta employees look? Chances are, the Delta workers noticed that unionized Northwest employees made less money.

The AFA took up this matter as well, saying Delta "transformed" the election into a "mandatory directive to vote 'no' against AFA." The airline "so overwhelmed the atmosphere that one flight attendant thought the election was a 'company sanctioned event.' "

With such dubious arguments, the unions have put the National Mediation Board to the test. If it's open-minded and unbiased, as the board claims to be, it's bound to reject the bid for new elections. If it's a tool of organized labor, it will go along.

Obama won't play a direct role in the decision. But he created the pro-labor majority on the NMB, just as the folks who run the Department of Labor and control the National Labor Relations Board are his people. So he's responsible for elevating unions to a privileged status.

You might suspect he aims to change the Democratic party into the Labor party. If that's the end he has in sight, he's taking all the right steps. There's an alternative explanation: Obama is just kowtowing to one more liberal pressure group.

Copyright 2011 The Weekly Standard. To see more, visit http://www.weeklystandard.com/.