In yet another pro labor move under the Obama administration, the National Mediation Board (“NMB”), which oversees labor affairs of airlines and railroads, has issued a final rule that will make it easier for unions to organize airline and railroad employees. Under the new rule, unions must obtain votes from a majority of all workers who cast ballots in order to be recognized. This is a significant change from the old rule, which had governed these elections for the past 76 years. In the past, unions had to obtain votes from a majority of all workers eligible to cast ballots in order to be recognized. Essentially, the old rule allowed workers who did not cast a ballot to effectively count as a “no” vote. As a result, in most cases the new rule will decrease the number of votes unions must obtain to win recognition. Most companies, which are governed by the National Labor Relations Act, follow the same majority requirements as the new rule.

The final rule was issued by the NMB after several months of discussion. It will take effect 30 days from its publication in the Federal Register on May 11 and its impact will likely be felt immediately in the airline industry. The Association of Flight Attendants (“AFA”) has already indicated that it will file for an election at Delta Air Lines once the rule becomes effective. Unions had previously failed to obtain a majority vote at Delta, but Delta’s composition of union and non-union workers has shifted since 2008 when it merged with a heavily unionized NorthWest Airlines. The Air Transport Association (“ATA”), which represents most airlines, has also responded to the new rule arguing that the NMB does not have authority to implement the rule. The ATA is expected to file a lawsuit challenging the validity of rule.

Although the NMB’s action is specific to the airline and railroad industries, it is notable because it continues the trend of recent pro labor actions. The rule was proposed by the AFL-CIO after President Obama named Linda Puchala to the NMB. Puchala was the former head of a flight attendant union and as with the recent appointments to the National Labor Relations Board, her appointment shifted the balance of the NMB in a pro labor direction. The rule was approved by a 2-1 vote with a dissent by Elizabeth Dougherty who explained that the new rule is “an unprecedented departure for the NMB and represents the most dramatic policy shift in the history of the agency.”