WASHINGTON ( TheStreet -- As Congress prepares to consider legislation making it easier for unions to sign up workers, about 750,000 unionized transportation workers watch from the sidelines, knowing they would receive no immediate benefit. That's because the Employee Free Choice Act, now pending, affects only workers covered by the National Labor Relations Act. Transportation workers generally fall under the Railway Labor Act, which makes organizing tougher and strikes less likely, on the theory that any breakdown in transportation services would be overly harmful to commerce. Still, transportation unions and workers are closely watching what happens to the Employee Free Choice Act, says Robert Roach, general vice president of the International Association of Machinists, the largest airline union.
"If the law is changed under the National Labor Relations Act, that will fuel a debate we are having regarding the RLA election process, which currently is unfair," Roach says. "The RLA is governed and administered by the National Mediation Board, which at some point could alter its regulations. So the Employee Free Choice Act is important because it will help to form that debate, as to what changes if any could be made. "To start that process, we would have to petition the board to make changes," he says. The biggest problem with the RLA election process, Roach says, is that for a union to win it must have 50% plus one of all the workers in a bargaining unit, not just all the workers who vote. Not only does that mean not voting constitutes a no vote, but also, unions sometimes have to round up legions of laid-off workers and urge them to vote.