Executive Summary: In a unanimous decision, a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed a preliminary injunction arising out of an airline's alleged violation of the status quo provisions of the Railway Labor Act (RLA). Int'l Bhd. Of Teamsters, Airline Division v. Allegiant Air, LLC, No. 14-16465 (9th Cir. June 8, 2015). The decision turned on whether an in-house "advocacy group" with which the airline had dealt on issues involving its pilots had become the pilots' collective bargaining representative for purposes of the RLA, and whether work rules developed by the airline in coordination with the advocacy group constituted a "status quo" that the airline could not change unilaterally during its negotiations with the newly-certified representative of the pilots. The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court on both those points.
In August 2012, the National Mediation Board certified the IBT as the collective bargaining representative of the pilots of Allegiant Air. In late 2013, IBT sued Allegiant for violating the RLA's status quo requirements, under the theory that the pilot advocacy group had been the pilots' representative for RLA purposes and that the work rules constituted a CBA. Thus, the IBT claimed that the work rules constituted the "status quo" that had to be observed during the parties' negotiations. In July 2014, a federal district court agreed with IBT and enjoined Allegiant from making changes that violated the status quo as established by the work rules. Allegiant appealed and the Ninth Circuit has now reversed the lower court's ruling.
The Ninth Circuit started from the premise that "[e]mployees, employers, and federal courts need certainty – prior to the advent of litigation – on whether an advocacy group is an RLA representative." The need for such clarity compelled the court to hold that an entity can become an RLA representative "only when certified by the Board or voluntarily recognized by the employer." The advocacy group unquestionably had never been certified to represent the pilots, leaving voluntary recognition as the only possibility. Not only was there no evidence that the advocacy group ever demanded recognition as the pilots' bargaining agent, its actions and statements demonstrated that it did not consider itself to have such a status. In summary, the Ninth Circuit held, if a "labor organization wants to be an RLA representative, it must demand recognition from a carrier; if the carrier will not give it, the group must seek Board certification. Because [the advocacy group] did neither, it was not an RLA representative."
Because the advocacy group was not an RLA representative, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the work rules were not a CBA within the meaning of the RLA. Based on prior precedent that there is no status quo obligation during initial contract negotiations, the RLA "did not prevent Allegiant from changing the Work Rules." The Ninth Circuit thus vacated the injunction and remanded the matter "to permit the Teamsters and Allegiant to continue negotiating a collective bargaining agreement in conformity with the RLA and under the Board's guidance."
Employers' Bottom Line: Through its adoption of a "bright line" test for determining RLA representative status, the decision provides a welcome level of certainty to carriers that their interactions with employee committees will not inadvertently turn those committees into RLA "representatives."