Supreme Court action: Justices reject right-wing scheme to kill airline, rail unions’ agency fees, will decide labor-law rights vs arbitration case

WASHINGTON—Railway and airline unions and workers won at the U.S. Supreme Court in early January as the justices, without comment, let stand an appellate court ruling tossing out the right-to-work lobby’s scheme to kill agency fees in those industries.

And the justices also agreed to tackle another issue that bedevils workers nationwide: Company demands that workers agree to forced arbitration of complaints — usually with the firms selecting the arbitrator — instead of relying on their labor law rights or filing class action suits to enforce those rights.

Association of Flight Attendants-CWA President Sarah Nelson hailed the High Court’s agency fee ruling during a Jan. 13 panel discussion on the importance of courts to workers, part of the AFL-CIO’s Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration. Her union and other rail and air unions supported the Transport Workers, who were defending the agency fees.

“Just last week, the counterpart to Friedrichs” — the anti-agency fees case the justices divided on 4-4 last year — “under the Railway Labor Act was dismissed by the Supreme Court,” Nelson said. She added that while such legal battles and victories are important, “The movement of public protest to change hearts and minds is critical to the courts.”

Nine airline workers, subsidized and prompted by the anti-worker National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, sued in federal district court in Dallas in late 2014 against the agency fees collected by the transportation unions the RLA covers.

Where the law allows, and if bargaining is successful, unions can collect agency fees from non-union workers whom they represent at the bargaining table. The fees cover only the costs of bargaining and contract enforcement, such as grievances. They don’t cover politics, lobbying or other activities.

Nevertheless, the nine non-unionists — fleet service clerks for American Eagle Airlines and flight attendants for Southwest — argued, as dissident teachers did in the Friedrichs case, that the very collection of the fees violates their 1st Amendment free speech rights.

Attorneys for the unions, including one lawyer who, before going to law school, was an organizer for the old International Ladies Garment Workers Union, defended the agency fees as payments for services the unions render to the workers, union and non-union. They pointed out the fees just go for “bargaining,” and not for “political” expenses.

The district court turned them down and, last July, so did the normally conservative 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. The right-to-work crowd asked the justices to hear the case, but the justices voted not to do so. The actual vote was not public and the justices offered no comments.

On Jan. 13, the justices decided to hear the arbitrations case later this year. In doing so, they’re tackling a long-running issue that the National Labor Relations Board repeatedly faces.

More and more firms are mandating that workers, as a condition of employment, sign agreements that force mandatory arbitration of any disputes with the company, including disputes — such as those over wages, benefits and working hours — that labor law covers.

But labor law, specifically the National Labor Relations Act, says workers may join together, organize and unionize, for their own mutual aid and protection on such key issues.

The arbitration clauses not only ban workers’ use of the NLRA, but also ban workers from filing class-action suits to overturn the bans and arbitrators’ rulings. In response, the labor board has been tossing out such forced arbitration clauses left and right. Now the justices will decide if they’re legal.

One of the three cases which were thrown together for future debate before the court involves Murphy Oil Co. gas station workers and the NLRB.

The board has ruled the mandatory arbitrations are illegal because the NLRA protects workers’ right to “engage in protected concerted activities – that is, action by two or more workers for their mutual aid or protection regarding terms or conditions of employment.” Protected concerted activities include unionizing, organizing, grievances and class action suits.

Murphy Oil USA requires its workers to sign a binding arbitration agreement banning class actions and other worker protections. Alabama gas station worker Sheila Hobson signed it eight years ago, but she and three other workers later sued Murphy for unpaid overtime.

When Murphy Oil, citing the mandatory arbitration agreement, said they couldn’t sue, Hobson took her case to the NLRB. She won there, but that same federal appeals court in New Orleans sided with the oil company and upheld the forced arbitration.

In the two other cases involving forced arbitration — from San Francisco and Wisconsin — the appeals courts sided with the workers who wanted to sue for unpaid overtime. That will leave the ultimate decision, on which courts are right and whether the Federal Arbitration Act overrides the National Labor Relations Act’s protections for workers, to the High Court.

Source: PAI