"I stand here to tell you -- in front of this whole room, in front of everybody, anybody who's listening -- that you're not going to get what you want," Transport Workers' Union president John Samuelsen told American Airlines president Robert Isom last month. "If this erupts into the bloodiest, ugliest battle that the United States labor movement ever saw, that's what's going to happen. You're already profitable enough."
It's safe to say that labor negotiations between airline mechanics and the largest airline company in the world are not going so well. Samuelsen's comments came after American Airlines sued its union workers, accusing them of conducting an "illegal slowdown" on repairs and maintenance work to gain leverage in their ongoing contract talks. While a lot of union-related activities -- including a strikes -- are protected under federal labor laws, can employees intentionally slow their work or production?
Slow, Sick, or Semi-Striking?
American claims it has "statistical evidence" that the union's alleged slowdown has caused 644 flight cancellations and more than 270 maintenance delays of two hours or longer. The airline says the slowdown is illegal under the Railway Labor Act, which "prohibits airlines employees from changing their normal behavior on a concerted basis in order to disrupt operations and obtain leverage in contract negotiations." The Act's status quo provision prohibits work slowdowns and employee sickouts during the entire contract negotiation period, and is intended to maintain working conditions existing before the dispute arose, until approved dispute resolution options are exhausted.
The RLA, however, only applies to railroads, airlines, and companies that are either owned/controlled by railroad or airline carriers or that perform a service in connection with transportation. So what if your business is in another industry?
At-Will Employment, Unions, and Termination
The vast majority of employment arrangements are at-will, meaning you can fire employees for any reason or no reason at all, as long as it's not a legally prohibited reason. Union workers, however, may be afforded more protection, especially in connection with contract negotiations, although the exact protections may differ depending on the type of work you do. One of the reasons that slowdowns are illegal in rail and air industries is the third-party interest in a well-functioning transportation system for travelers and shippers.
The big challenge for employers is actually proving that your workers are slowing down or calling in sick on purpose. And, even if you can, your options may be limited. Note that American Airlines isn't trying to fire mechanics and maintenance workers -- it is only seeking an injunction that would force the union to cease slowdown activity.
Employment law generally, and union-related labor law specifically, can be complicated. If you're wondering how to address a perceived slowdown at your small business, contact an experienced employment attorney for help.