Union-Vote Rule Change: Bad News for Non-Union Delta, JetBlue

Last Updated May 17, 2010 9:44 AM EDT

If you've seen any union organizers doing the happy dance recently, it's likely because of the seemingly small yet powerful rule change that was passed by the National Mediation Board (NMB). In short, it's going to be easier to unionize at airlines from now on unless legal challenges are successful at blocking the change. (The changes favor rail unions as well.)

Airlines like Delta (DAL) and JetBlue (JBLU) are probably sweating bullets here since they will face a tougher battle keeping unions away from their non-organized workgroups. Though unions are claiming victory for workers, it's unlikely to really have a positive impact on anyone except for the unions themselves. For management, it will now mean encouraging your employees to vote in any union election, as strange as that sounds.

The rule change is this. Currently, when workgroups vote on union representation, a "yes" vote counts as "yes," a "no" vote counts as "no," and no vote at all also counts as "no." Under the new rules, no vote at all isn't counted at all, so unions need a simple majority of those who vote instead of those who are in the workgroup.

Let's use an example. Say there are 1,000 people that write awesome blogs for BlogCo. A union wants to organize the writers and comes in and gets enough cards to call a vote. In the vote, 300 people vote yes, 200 vote no, and the other 500 don't vote. Today, that would mean 300 out of 1,000 voted yes so the vote failed. Under the new rule, 300 out of 500 voted yes so the union would have won.

Why did the NMB make this change? Beats me. There really is no good reason other than political pressure, it seems. I don't see why else this would happen except for simply standardizing the rule with what other industries have. But if that's the true motivation, then this is a half-assed job of standardization.

As you could have guessed, the unions are thrilled. How about this quote from a missive by Edward Wytkind, President of the Transportation Trades Dept for the AFL-CIO:

Today, a longstanding injustice was rectified. After decades of operating within a system that is rigged against them, airline and rail workers have gained a right that most of us take for granted -- the right to vote in elections where the majority of those participating wins.
Oh, please. He acts like airline workgroups couldn't unionize before. Yeah, right. Airlines and railroads work on a completely different system that was created by the Railway Labor Act. Many out there wish that distinction would disappear, and I would agree. If contracts actually expired as they do in other industries, the two parties would have incentive to come to the table and hammer out an agreement. Instead, we have this horrible cycle where contracts simply become amendable and negotiations stretch out for years and years. But we're stuck with this system for now and this little tweak could have an impact without creating the broader reform that would solve more of the problems that are out there.

There's no question Delta is sweating this one more than most, and though the Air Transport Association is leading the charge against the change, Delta is right there. With several post-merger workgroups getting close to voting on representation, this may push the union support over the top. But it's not a sure thing by any means. JetBlue will also be concerned. Many union drives have targeted the non-union JetBlue workforce and this may help them get their foot in the door.

In the past, employees who wanted to vote no often wouldn't vote because they knew it had the same effect. Now, that's going to change, so it's a matter of seeing how many employees are too lazy to send it in versus how many will get up to take a stand. I imagine it'll be different in every election, but we won't know for sure until we start seeing results under this rule, which takes effect next month.

This actually puts management in the strange place of wanting to encourage everyone to vote. If one "no" person fails to vote, then that's a win for the unions, but not necessarily for employees. It's rare to see unions gain much for their members in recent years, though the dues certainly keep rolling in. This just gives unions more of a presence. Whether that leads to progress in their eyes remains to be seen, but I'm highly skeptical.

Photo via Flickr user aflcio