United Airlines President’s Comments Could Ground Union Takeoff

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By Fatima Hussein and Jaclyn Diaz

United Airlines Inc. catering workers could lose flight benefits if they ultimately vote to join the Unite Here! union, President J. Scott Kirby told an employee during a meet-and-greet in Houston, according to documents obtained by Bloomberg Law through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Kirby’s statements could complicate the employees’ union drive or incite litigation that could hinder the company’s attempt to block it.

Employees enjoy flight privileges, including discounted rates on airline tickets and unlimited standby travel to anywhere United flies, according to the company’s website.

A Houston sanitation employee told National Mediation Board investigators in a sworn declaration signed May 16 that Kirby told them “everything at work could change, such as employees being required to clock out when they take breaks and losing flight benefits.” The employee’s name was redacted from the document.

“I asked why it would make sense to take away flight benefits only from us, when the other divisions of United such as rampers and flight attendants all have flight benefits,” the employee said. “He countered that Gate Gourmet and Sky Chef [contracted catering services for other airlines] do not offer flight benefits and their jobs are similar to ours.”

Treated ‘Fairly’

Since January, more than 2,700 of United’s catering workers have been attempting to join the union. The employees filed union cards with Unite Here!, a labor union that represents a variety of service workers. But United is stalling their vote to join the union, they said.

“United Airlines is committed to treating all of our employees fairly whether or not they are represented by a union,” spokesman Frank Benenati said in an email to Bloomberg Environment.

“We are proud to offer competitive compensation, industry-leading benefits and privileges and a safe, supportive work environment,” he said. “These are simply facts related to third-party representation, and we want our employees to be able to make an informed decision.”

Labor and employment attorneys who spoke to Bloomberg Law had differing opinions on the severity of Kirby’s comments.

“In my own view, on the face of it, it’s a very serious threat,” said Lance Compa, a labor law professor at Cornell University. “I think it’s especially distressing that a company that deals with most of its employees through a collective bargaining process is targeting these workers.”

Drive Started in Winter

The catering workers’ organizing efforts officially began in January at airports in five cities—Newark, Houston, Denver, Cleveland, and Honolulu—when workers filed for a union election over safety and labor issues.

Warehouse workers in Newark told Bloomberg Environment about dry ice injuries while food prep workers talked about a lack of safety equipment for all employees.

United is no stranger to an organized workforce, Compa said. Its pilots are represented by the Air Line Pilots Association and its flight attendants are represented by the Association of Flight Attendants. The catering workers are the only group of nonunion labor on United’s roster of 90,000 employees.

United filed a fraud claim in February with the National Mediation Board, which governs labor-management relations for the country’s roughly 100 airlines and 500 railroads. In its letter to the board, United said Unite Here! coerced workers to support a union.

In a rare move, the board initiated a field investigation of the union’s organizing methods that it recently completed, according to the union.

Representatives of the National Mediation Board didn’t respond to Bloomberg Environment requests for comment.

Effects of the Statements

Adam C. Abrahms, an attorney for Epstein Becker & Green PC in Los Angeles, told Bloomberg Law that Kirby’s comments are textbook answers.

“These comments have long been recognized as the things you would train management personnel on how to respond to union organizing issues,” he said. “It was a fairly good statement in response to an impromptu question he received.”

It’s very likely, however, that the union could pursue a labor complaint against United for these comments, Abrahms added.

Overall, it’s important to pay attention to who’s delivering these kind of messages, Peggy McCausland, a management-side attorney with McCausland & McCausland LLC in Bala Cynwyd, Pa., told Bloomberg Law.

“The way the courts look at it is if it could be perceived as a threat, that could be good enough,” she said. “I have to say if I was a union lawyer, I’d point to something that the CEO [president] said and say that makes it all the more threatening, just by virtue of who it’s coming from.

“It could end up working against management,” McCausland added. “It’s easier to say a misinformed manager was being inartful in what they said,” rather than if it was coming from company leadership.

Union’s Options

The threats against flight benefits are one of the tactics that United has used against workers throughout this organizing campaign, Meghan Cohorst, a spokeswoman from Unite Here!, told Bloomberg Environment.

Ordinarily, a worker could file an unfair labor practice charge under the National Labor Relations Act, Compa said, but since United workers are covered under the Railway Labor Act, the path to a resolution looks much different.

Under the Railway Labor Act, employers and workers are given the right to seek relief in the federal courts to enforce key provisions of the law. The union could file a lawsuit on the grounds that United violated the Railway Labor Act, but adjudication could take months or even years, Compa said.

The union also could go to court to seek an injunction, “but the bar is very high,” he said. Even if the union prevailed, the appeals process would still tie everything up for months, he added.

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