A federal court in New York recently ruled in favor of American Airlines on claims by a group of flight attendants that it violated the Railway Labor Act (RLA) when it obtained concessions from them in an effort to avoid bankruptcy following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. See Marcoux v. American Airlines (July 22, 2008). The flight attendants filed a class action lawsuit claiming the airline violated Sections 152 Seventh, 152 Fourth and 152 First of the RLA. The lawsuit also alleged breach of the duty of fair representation (DFR) against the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA) and against American. The court granted summary judgment on all the claims.
After the September 11 attacks, American’s financial condition declined and it sought concessions from the APFA, as well as its other unions, in an effort to avoid bankruptcy. American and APFA ultimately reached a tentative restructuring agreement (RPA), which APFA presented to the flight attendants for ratification. To meet American’s deadline for ratification to avoid filing for bankruptcy, the voting was conducted over a 15-day period by telephone instead of over a 30-day period by mail as required by the union’s constitution.
Although the RPA was not ratified by the deadline, American agreed to a one-day extension of the voting period and the RPA was ratified. During the voting period, the airline’s CEO made speeches to the union members to explain American’s financial situation and encourage them to vote for the RPA.
Section 152 Seventh: The flight attendants claimed the RPA was formed in a manner inconsistent with the requirements of Section 152 Seventh of the RLA and that American violated Section 152 Seventh by complying with the RPA. Section 152 Seventh requires the parties to a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) to maintain, during the pendency of any dispute arising under their CBA, the working conditions in place prior to inception of the dispute.
The court held that individual employees do not have a right to sue under Section 152 Seventh. According to the court, this provision is designed to foster agreement between the employer and the employees’ certified representative. Permitting individual employees to invalidate settlements previously negotiated by their certified representative and designed to prevent bankruptcy would undermine the purposes of Section 152 Seventh.
Section 152 First: The flight attendants also claimed that the airline violated Section 152 First when it did not revert back to their 2001 CBA. Section 152 First requires all carriers, their officers and agents to “exert every reasonable effort to make and maintain agreements concerning rates of pay, rules, and working conditions, and to settle all disputes” to avoid any interruption in commerce. The court held that this provision is directed to the relationship between the employer and the employees’ authorized representative. Accordingly, the flight attendants had no right to bring a suit under this provision in an effort to invalidate the agreements negotiated by their union.
Section 152 Fourth: The flight attendants also claimed that American violated Section 152 Fourth by interfering with the RPA ratification process. This Section makes it “unlawful for any carrier to interfere in any way with the organization of its employees, or to use the funds of the carrier in maintaining or assisting or contributing to any labor organization…”
The court ruled in favor of American on this clam as well, finding that the flight attendants failed to show that the airline was motivated by antiunion animus in exerting economic pressure on the APFA to obtain the RPA and a subsequent letter of agreement (LOA). The court held that the economic pressures imposed by the airline resulted from its “dire economic predicament” to which APFA responded with independence of judgment. The court also held that the fact that American did not disclose information relating to retirement provisions for certain high-ranking company officials prior to the RPA ratification process was not evidence of the airline’s attempt to undermine APFA’s ability to represent the flight attendants. The court held that the flight attendants “failed to show that the integrity of the Union and its ability to bargain on the employees’ behalf were compromised by Company conduct.”
The court also ruled in favor of APFA and American on the flight attendants’ DFR claims. Utilizing a “highly deferential” standard of review, the court held that APFA’s conduct during the negotiation and ratification of the RPA and LOA were rational and not arbitrary. Since employer liability on a DFR theory is derivative of union liability, the court dismissed the DFR claims against American as well