By: Michele Haydel Gehrke, Esq.

In a case highlighting some of the important differences between the Railway Labor Act and the National Labor Relations Act, the Ninth Circuit recently upheld a federal district court decision enjoining a threatened strike by a group of unrepresented employees working for Aircraft Service International (“ASI”) at Seattle’s busy Sea-Tac airport. According to the opinion, ASI is responsible for refueling approximately 75 percent of the airplanes at the Sea-Tac airport, and the impending strike significantly threatened to “disrupt interstate commerce” and airport operations.

The District Court for the Western District of Washington issued the strike injunction in October 2012 after a group of unrepresented workers threatened to strike and nearly shut down the airport over a contentious dispute involving the suspension of an employee who alleged he was suspended “in retaliation for his leadership on workplace safety issues.” ASI claimed he was suspended for “inappropriate behavior.” After a failed campaign to reinstate the employee, the workers organized a group response with the help of “Working Washington,” a coalition of community groups, and threatened to strike on an uncertain date in the future. ASI immediately filed suit in federal court seeking a temporary restraining order to block the threatened strike. The District Court issued the temporary restraining order and then a preliminary injunction several weeks later. The employees and Working Washington appealed.

In a 2 to 1 decision, the appellate court affirmed the finding of the district judge that the workers violated Section 2, First of the RLA by failing to “make and maintain agreements” and threatening to strike prior to exhausting the RLA’s procedures for resolving disputes. Although the employees were not represented by a union, since they conceded that they were “carrier employees” for purposes of the RLA, the Ninth Circuit held that the workers had a duty to appoint a representative and attempt to bargain collectively with ASI to resolve the dispute prior to striking. The court was careful to note that the RLA does not require employees to unionize, but simply to appoint a representative for purposes of resolving disputes.

The appellate court rejected the employees’ arguments that the District Court lacked jurisdiction to issue the strike injunction because of the Norris LaGuardia Act’s general prohibition on federal courts issuing injunctions in labor disputes. The court noted the ample authority for issuing injunctions to enforce the tenets of the RLA and to avoid an interruption to interstate commerce. The court also rejected the employees’ arguments that the injunction violated their free speech rights under the First Amendment.

This decision serves as an important reminder of the unique rights and responsibilities imposed on employers and employees in the rail and airline industries under the RLA that differ from those that govern other industries subject to the NLRA. It also serves as yet another example of the federal courts using their powers to enjoin a strike under the RLA notwithstanding the Norris LaGuardia Act when necessary to prevent a disruption to airport operations and the flow of interstate commerce.