Last Friday, House and Senate leaders announced an agreement on a long-awaited bill to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration. Republicans withdrew a controversial labor provision that had drawn a veto threat from the White House in exchange for other changes to unionization rules. The deal paves the way for an FAA bill that has been years in the making. Lawmakers were facing a Jan. 31 deadline when the current FAA extension would expire. Lawmakers will pass one last extension this week, and they expect the final bill to be completed in February.
News of the breakthrough caused the aviation community to breathe a sigh of relief. But the deal also could impact future transportation negotiations; labor fights might now be fair game. Republicans backed off of their demand to rescind an administration rule that makes it easier for rail and aviation workers to unionize only after Democrats agreed to tweak how unionization elections are conducted and overseen. The biggest change is that the threshold to trigger a union election would be raised from 35 percent to 50 percent of covered workers. Labor officials say that change would have almost no practical impact on unionization because virtually all organizing campaigns are supported by more than half of the covered workforce.
Nonetheless, Republicans consider the Democrats' concessions a huge win because this is the first time that changes to union rules have been included in an FAA reauthorization bill. AFL-CIO Transportation and Trades Department President Edward Wytkind said the FAA bill is wrong place to be talking about complex union rules. "We don't believe amendments to the Railway Labor Act belong in an air-safety bill," he told me before the deal was finalized.
Did Democratic leaders do the right thing in granting unionization changes in order to jump-start an otherwise popular and noncontroversial transportation bill? Did Republicans do the right thing raising the union issue, knowing that the FAA bill would be the only place they would get any traction? Does this deal set a precedent for labor negotiations in future transportation bills? When is it appropriate to address union rules in transportation policy?