Executive Summary:  The Ninth Circuit recently affirmed the decision of a federal trial court, which granted a strike injunction against unrepresented employees of Aircraft Service International, Inc., doing business as Aircraft Service International Group (ASIG).  The Ninth Circuit held that the employees had a duty under the Railway Labor Act (RLA) to engage in the Act's dispute resolution mechanisms before striking.  Because they failed to do so, the court held that the lower court did not abuse its discretion in issuing the injunction.  Additionally, the court held that the injunction did not violate the employees' First Amendment rights because it furthered the important governmental interest of regulating the economic relationship between labor and management and was no greater than essential to the furtherance of that interest.

ASIG provides services to air carriers throughout the country, including at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (Sea-Tac).  At Sea-Tac, ASIG refuels approximately 75 percent of all commercial flights. 

Working Washington, which describes itself as a coalition of individuals and advocacy groups, has been supporting efforts to get airline contractors at Sea-Tac to pay higher wages.  In the fall of 2012, ASIG learned of a threatened job action by its employees at Sea-Tac, purportedly to protest the suspension of an ASIG fueler who allegedly had been active in "organizing" the employees and in speaking out on safety issues.  In October 2012, Working Washington announced that the employees had decided to strike, and that the ASIG fuelers could go on strike at any time.

ASIG immediately filed a complaint in federal district court seeking to enjoin the strike as unlawful under the RLA.  The district court granted a temporary restraining order prohibiting the employees and Working Washington from striking and subsequently issued a preliminary strike injunction.  On appeal, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court's order. 

Norris LaGuardia Act did not Deprive the Court of Jurisdiction

The Ninth Circuit held that the Norris LaGuardia Act (NLGA) did not deprive the court of jurisdiction to enjoin the strike.  Generally, the NLGA withdraws jurisdiction from federal courts to enjoin strikes growing out of labor disputes.  However, the NLGA does not deprive courts of jurisdiction to issue injunctions to ensure compliance with the provisions of the RLA.  The court noted that Congress enacted the RLA to eliminate interruptions in interstate commerce caused by labor disputes between carriers and their employees.  In accordance with that purpose, Section 2, First of the RLA requires all carriers and their employees to exert "every reasonable effort to make and maintain agreements concerning rates of pay, rules and working conditions, and to settle all disputes, whether arising out of the application of such agreements or otherwise" to avoid any interruption to commerce or the operation of the carrier arising out of disputes between the carrier and its employees. 

The court held that the Section 2, First duty applies to all carrier employees.  Because the employees conceded they were carrier employees, the court found that they had a duty under Section 2, First to make and maintain agreements and settle all disputes.  The court held that "[s]triking without even attempting to appoint a representative and collectively bargain violates this duty." 

The court rejected the employees' argument that Section 2, First is a policy, not an independent obligation.  The court noted that both the U.S. Supreme Court and the Ninth Circuit have rejected this interpretation of Section 2, First.  Further, the court held that the text of Section 2, First clearly indicates that its terms are to be regarded as a duty. 

The court also rejected the employees' argument that Section 2, First does not apply to them because they are not represented by a union, holding that the text of that Section applies to "all carriers['] . . . employees."  The court found that the employees were obligated to "exert every reasonable effort" to make labor agreements and settle labor disputes and that the provisions of the RLA provide the preliminary mechanism for doing so.  According to the court, failure to acknowledge the connection between Section 2, First's duties and the RLA's procedures would permit carrier employees to "leverage their critical role in interstate commerce and exploit it in their quest for concessions" in contravention of the RLA's purpose. 

The court found that the employees' decision to strike before appointing a representative and attempting to bargain collectively under the procedures of the RLA violated their duty under Section 2, First.  The court held that before striking the employees must appoint a representative according to the procedures in the RLA, then they could settle their dispute with ASIG and shoulder their duty under Section 2, First.  The court further noted that the employees in this case were not trying to deal independently with the employer; they were trying to strike, which they could do only if they had followed the RLA and carried out their duties under it.  The court found that this case presents the "very situation for which Congress enacted the RLA: carrier employees threatening a strike capable of single-handedly interrupting interstate commerce by shutting down an airport."   Accordingly, the court upheld the lower court's exercise of jurisdiction and issuance of the strike injunction, holding, "[s]imply because a group of carrier employees does not meet the typical unionized mold does not mean Congress intended their strike to be above the law."

The court also held that the NLGA did not deprive the lower court of jurisdiction because the employees failed to carry out their duties under the RLA, while ASIG had not shirked its own statutory duties.  Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit held that the lower court's exercise of jurisdiction was proper because the employees were covered by the RLA and had a legal obligation with which they had not complied.

No First Amendment Violation

The Ninth Circuit also held that the strike injunction did not violate the employees' First Amendment rights, noting that Congress has consistently held that actions inconsistent with the nation's labor laws generally are not protected by the First Amendment.  A court can enjoin informational picketing in the midst of a labor dispute if the injunction "furthers an important or substantial government interest; if the governmental interest is unrelated to the suppression of free expression; and if the incidental restriction on alleged First Amendment freedoms is no greater than is essential to the furtherance of that interest."  In this case, the injunction only prohibited the employees from striking against ASIG and prohibited both the employees and Working Washington from encouraging strikes.  The court found that the employees could freely exercise their First Amendment rights in seeking better working conditions in ways other than striking.  Thus, the Ninth Circuit held that the lower court did not abuse its discretion in finding that the balance of equities favored ASIG and issuing the strike injunction.  The defendants have requested that the court rehear the case en banc, but court has not issued a decision on that request.