Why Obama should have vetoed FAA Reauthorization Act

Date: February 17, 2012
Type: Media Article

Source: The Hill
Author: John Logan

On February 14, President Obama quietly signed into law the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, which will provide $63.6 billion for the agency’s programs between 2012-2015. The House had passed the bill on February 3, and three days later the Senate voted for the conference agreement. 157 House Democrats and 18 Senate Democrats opposed the bill, while Hill Republicans supported the bill only after forcing the adoption of controversial provisions that will make it more difficult for airline and railroad workers to form unions.

After 5 years of uncertainty and 23 short-term extensions, there’s no question that a long-term solution to FAA funding was overdue. There’s also no question that the unprecedented inclusion of the anti-union provisions in the legislation demonstrates the GOP’s determination to destroy unions. As its labor critics have stated, the bill is a compromise in name only, and the President should have vetoed it.

One can understand why President Obama supported a long-term solution to FAA funding, which was vital not only for the stability of the agency, but for job creation and the shaky economic recovery. FAA funding supports an estimated 300,000 jobs. Last summer’s temporary shutdown of the agency –
caused by the GOP’s militant anti-unionism – cost the federal government an estimated half a billion dollars. 4,000 FAA employees and 70,000 private sector construction workers were furloughed, and the agency lost hundreds of millions of dollars in airline ticket tax revenue.

The president signed because the reauthorization act is one of the only bills that Republicans have not blocked that has job creation potential. But the anti-union language – which has nothing to do with aviation safety or job creation – is bad policy. When push came to shove, diminishing
workers’ rights was more important to the GOP than protecting them was for Democrats.  Republicans balked until they gained the inclusion of the
labor provisions, then presented Democrats with a take-it-or-leave it deal, with little time to examine the details.

Hill Republicans would never accept the inclusion of language that strengthens workers’ rights in an unrelated must pass bill. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) correctly called the insertion of the labor provisions an “abuse of the legislative process.” GOP leaders were prepared to hold the economy hostage in order to further their militant anti-union agenda.

The labor provisions make it harder for airline and railroad workers to form unions in several respects:  They place limits on National Mediation Board rule-making, increase the threshold for unions to petition for elections, make it more difficult for unions to win run-off elections, increase the likelihood of litigation, strengthen employers’ ability to delay organizing and bargaining, and make union authorization cards subject to discovery, thereby making it less likely that employees will sign them in the first place.

The higher threshold of support required to petition for elections may have a profound impact. Union elections under the Railway Labor Act are unlike those under the NLRA. Anti-union behavior by firms like Delta is just as aggressive, but management does not supply employee lists, and furloughed and terminated employees can be counted as eligible voters. Moreover, if a large non-union airline were to buy a smaller unionized airline – such as Delta buying American Airlines – there likely would be no election to determine representation. The new mega-airline would henceforth be entirely non-union. And the reauthorization bill makes it easier for airports to replace unionized Transportation Security Administration airport screeners with non-union private contractors.

What’s worse for airline and railroad workers, nothing in the bill prevents a future Republican administration from reversing the 2010 election rule the party pushed so hard to undo last year. The language on elections adopted -- changing RLA elections from a majority of eligible votes to a majority of votes cast -- was not included in the bill, and thus remains only a rule, which could be reversed by a future Republican NMB.

The right wing is delighted with the outcome of the “compromise” legislation. House Speaker John Boenher claimed victory over the inclusion of the “long-overdue” anti-union provisions, while the Chamber of Commerce praised the reauthorization bill.

Fairer rules for union certification elections under the RLA had been Obama’s major achievement in the labor arena. The GOP has now reversed that advancement. On workers’ rights, Hill Republicans know which side they are on – that of the American Legislative Exchange Council -- and they act on it. They accuse the president of waging “class warfare” for supporting basic economic fairness. In reality, the one-sided class war the GOP is waging against unions is the closest thing we have to class conflict.

Explaining his “no” vote, Senator Harkin stated that Republicans are “determined to destroy organized labor.” This bill takes them one small
step closer to that goal.

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