On June 8, 2015, in International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Airlines Division v. Allegiant Air, LLC, No. 14-16465 (June 8, 2015), the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that under the Railway Labor Act (RLA), employers are not precluded from unilaterally changing working conditions during negotiation of an initial collective bargaining agreement. TheAllegiant decision reaffirmed the court’s earlier ruling in International Brotherhood Of Teamsters v. North American Airlines, 518 F.3d 1052 (9th Cir. 2008).

In Allegiant, the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s decision to issue an injunction against Allegiant Air, LLC prohibiting it from making any changes to existing work rules while Allegiant and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Airline Division were negotiating their first collective bargaining agreement (CBA).  

The district court relied, in large part, on the fact that, in 2004 (well before election of the Teamsters as their representative), the Allegiant pilots had established an employee advocacy group, referred to as the Allegiant Air Pilots Advocacy Group (AAPAG), that for years negotiated with Allegiant on behalf of the pilots over leave, pay, scheduling, and other issues.  The National Mediation Board (NMB) has repeatedly stated that such employee committees are lawful under the RLA, unless the carrier uses the group to interfere with an election. 

When the Teamsters filed an application to represent the pilots in 2012, they took the position that AAPAG was not the pilots’ RLA representative and listed the pilots as presently unrepresented. The Teamsters won the election, were certified as the pilots’ representative, and had begun first contract negotiations with Allegiant, when Allegiant decided to change several of the prior work rules it had negotiated with AAPAG.

The Teamsters sued to enjoin Allegiant from unilaterally altering the work rules during negotiations. The district court granted the injunction, finding that AAPAG qualified as a “representative” under the RLA, and thus the RLA’s status quo requirement precluded Allegiant from making any changes to the pilot’s work rules during negotiations. Under RLA precedent, parties may not unilaterally change working conditions previously fixed by a CBA.Allegiant appealed the district court’s decision and argued, among other things, that there was no pre-existing CBA in place. Allegiant argued that the work rules negotiated with AAPAG were not a CBA because AAPAG was not an RLA representative with authority to enter into a collective bargaining agreement.

The Ninth Circuit agreed. The court first noted that a labor organization may gain RLA representative status in one of two ways: (1) by petitioning the NMB to certify it as the representative through a secret ballot election or (2) by voluntary recognition. Because AAPAG neither sought NMB certification nor voluntary recognition as an RLA representative, the court found that AAPAG was not an RLA representative and thus the work rules AAPAG had negotiated with Allegiant did not constitute a CBA under the RLA. Absent a pre-existing CBA, the court held that Allegiant was under no obligation to maintain the status quo during its negotiations with the Teamsters for an initial CBA.

The Ninth Circuit’s decision confirms that unions will have a difficult—if not impossible—time stopping employers from making changes to the status quo during first contract negotiations. This case also appears to provide strong protection for carriers if unions attempt to engage in work stoppages because of changes in pay, work rules, or other conditions during negotiation of a first agreement. Where, however, an RLA representative is being replaced by a new representative, the carrier still must abide by its status quo obligations during negotiations for a contract with the new representative.