ATLANTA ( TheStreet) -- Delta's ( DAL) long-standing, largely union-free status is up in the air as the National Mediation Board engages in an unusually contentious debate over changing a rule that could make it easier for airline workers to unionize. Delta, the world's largest airline, acquired heavily unionized Northwest in 2008 and now is headed toward a series of representation elections. Two of the biggest airline unions, the International Association of Machinists and the Association of Flight Attendants, are battling to retain their standing at the merged carrier. Delta employee costs would likely rise in any case. Either the carrier will bring Northwest employees, who signed contracts in bankruptcy, to Delta levels, or it will negotiate new contracts with unions. But Delta has said repeatedly that it prefers to deal directly with employees, without a third party involved. A few months after Delta completed the Northwest acquisition, Barack Obama's election brought a new composition to the NMB, which oversees Railway Labor Act implementation at transportation companies. Now the board is seeking to change a long-standing provision of the nation's labor laws. Currently, unions face an unusual burden in RLA elections: They must win support from a majority of the people eligible to vote, not just a majority of the people who do vote. The law has been in place for 75 years, under the theory that labor strife ought not to disrupt essential transportation, and generally has not prevented unionization in the airline industry.
With former labor leaders now occupying two of the three spots on the board, it is not surprising that they would seek to compensate for an anti-labor approach the panel took during the Bush administration. However, the board seems to be pursuing its goal clumsily. In recent years, the board has seemed less than open about its procedures, but that trend escalated recently when its procedures prevented some reporters from attending a hearing on the rule change, and delayed those who did attend. Earlier, dissension on the board surfaced in a letter from the Republican member, who chastised the Democratic members. And the effort to change long-standing law has drawn enmity from opponents in the industry. Reporters faced an unusual requirement to attend the Dec. 7 session: They had to register more than two weeks in advance. One of the few who complied was Jennifer Michels of Aviation Daily. Nevertheless, NMB staffers sought to deny her entry, apparently due to a bureaucratic mixup. "I got a confirmation email saying I was on the list," Michels said. "But I when I got there, they said I wasn't." Michels said she argued for a half hour until being allowed in. NMB spokesman Don West declined to comment on Michels' specific situation, but said reporters had a fair opportunity to attend. "On the (NMB) Web site, there was an open invitation, but people had to respond in accordance with that invitation," he says.
A second dispute reflects the board's political split. In a letter last month to nine Republican senators, board chairman Elizabeth Dougherty complained that the two Democratic members did not let her participate in preparing the proposal to change the election rule. "It was completed without my input or participation, and I was excluded from any discussions regarding the timing," Dougherty said, bemoaning the "exclusionary behavior" and saying she dissents from the proposal. Another opponent is Robert Siegel, attorney for the Air Transport Association, who blasted the NMB for "an extraordinarily inadequate and manifestly improper internal process" in moving ahead without considering Dougherty's views and in other departures from board practice. The board may well act to change the rules, but the cost would be that it "will have jettisoned its hard-earned reputation as an honest broker and disinterested referee, and thus will have jettisoned its ability to insure the labor relations stability that Congress intended it to provide," Siegel said. Backers of the change include Robert Roach, general vice president of the IAM, the largest airline union. The election rules may have been in place since 1934, Roach said, but "sometimes it takes government a very long time to correct mistakes. "Under the current NMB election process, people who do not participate in an election are considered to have voted against union representation," Roach said. "It doesn't matter why they didn't vote. They may have wanted a union but were unable to cast their ballot." Or they may be furloughed workers, with new jobs outside the airline industry, who cannot be located. "The new rule will not suddenly give unions an edge in elections, as some claim," he said. "It will only take the advantage away from the carriers." About 100 people attended the hearing and about three dozen read statements. The comment period extends until Jan. 4. West said no timetable exists for a decision. -- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C. .