The Plum Line

Excerpted from

Unions set to blast Democrats

Just when Democrats are trying to unite behind a populist message ahead of the 2012 elections, more than a dozen unions are blasting Senate Democratic leaders over a deal with Republicans on the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization. In a letter that was made public late Monday, leaders of the Service Employees International Union and AFL-CIO affiliates, such as the Communications Workers of America, say that the deal could compromise their ability to organize; they demand that Democrats withdraw from it and push harder for a “clean” reauthorization.

One labor official told me that the deal has led to “significant union discontent” with Senate Democratic leaders.

Last fall House Republicans tried to insert a union-busting provision into the FAA reauthorization that would have counted it as a “no” vote when airline or railway workers failed to vote at all on whether to unionize. After Democrats refused to budge, House Republicans backed down and agreed to a “clean” temporary extension. Unions hoped that Democrats would again hold firm when the longer-term reauthorization was negotiated.

A few weeks ago Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced a deal, authored by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D), that would nix the GOP’s desired union-busting provision; in exchange, the threshold of worker interest required for triggering an election on whether to form a union would be raised from 35 percent to 50. A Senate Democratic aide e-mailed Monday: “This bill is a compromise — by definition, not everyone got everything they wanted. That said, Democrats stood firm to protect American workers, and forced Republicans to back down on the workplace fairness provision that prompted this fight in the first place, leaving that provision intact and unchanged.”

Labor officials have concluded that the raised threshold would make it harder to organize amid mergers of unionized and non-unionized airlines, a key labor target. They also see a terrible precedent in opening the door to rewriting long-standing labor law. In the letter to Democratic leaders, the unions say:

“We remain strongly committed to passage of a clean FAA reauthorization bill. An aviation safety and security bill is no place to impose unrelated and controversial labor provisions that will ultimately serve to harm both airline and railroad workers. The proposed Railway Labor Act changes would drastically rewrite a statute that was crafted by labor-management cooperation and has not been changed for over 75 years without the agreement of both employer and employee representatives. Airline and rail workers would suffer significant losses as contracts are jettisoned, collective bargaining rights are cut and legal hurdles will be placed in the way of gaining a voice at work . . .

“Rewarding the House Republican Leadership’s desire to rewrite decades of long standing labor law in a flash by inserting an unrelated and controversial labor provision in a much needed aviation safety and security bill, without notice, hearing, or debate, sets an extremely dangerous precedent. We urge the Senate to delete the provisions of the bill that would amend the RLA and pass the clean FAA reauthorization that all concerned recognize this country sorely needs and supports.”

This was a priority issue for union leaders, who hoped Democrats would deliver a result that could help repair relations with dispirited members ahead of November.