United Airlines Loses Challenge to Union Drive

(Bloomberg) -- A vote on unionization by 2,700 United Airlines in-flight catering workers can move forward over the company’s objections, the general counsel of the National Mediation Board ruled.

The workers, who prepare and transport food for flights, are the only group of front-line United employees who don’t have union representation. In January, the hospitality union Unite Here filed a petition, with support from three-quarters of United’s kitchen workforce, seeking a vote. United Airlines responded with a complaint alleging fraud and misrepresentation by the union before the petition was filed, contending that Unite Here organizers had shown up at workers’ homes claiming to be representatives of the airline conducting a poll.

The NMB responded to the airline’s complaint by delaying the election in order to investigate the airline’s allegations, which the union denied.

In her ruling Wednesday, NMB General Counsel Mary Johnson wrote that after interviewing employees, the agency’s investigators had determined that “there is no evidence that employees did not understand that Unite Here was a union and was not a representative of United. Almost universally, employees either signed a card out of a desire to support the organization’s campaign, or they declined to sign a card without feeling pressured.” She rejected, however, the union’s request to let it be certified via a count of union cards rather than secret ballot. The union had based its request on a claim of alleged company misconduct.

Johnson didn’t rule on any other claims of wrongdoing by either side. The agency instructed United Airlines to provide it with names and addresses of eligible voters within five days.

In an emailed statement Thursday, United Airlines spokesman Frank Benenati said the company respects employees’ right to decide whether to be represented by a union and would comply with the government’s rules and process. “We are proud to offer competitive compensation, industry-leading benefits and privileges and a safe, supportive work environment,” Benenati said. 

“We are pleased with the NMB’s decision to allow United Catering workers the opportunity to vote in a union election,” Alisa Gallo, organizing director for Unite Here food service division, said in an e-mailed statement. “We hope that the election will now be scheduled and conducted expeditiously.”

Previously, Unite Here had made its own allegations of misconduct against United. In May, the union claimed the company prevented employees from engaging in pro-union activity; subjected pro-union employees to surveillance, harassment and retaliation; and conveyed “threats, promises, and misinformation” in workplace postings and electronic messages, such as those displayed on TV screens in its kitchens. United has denied those allegations.

Citing the alleged interference, the union had urged the NMB to let workers vote by signing cards rather than requiring a secret ballot election. United had urged that, if an election is held, employees vote in-person at the workplace. The NMB rejected both requests, dictating that voting take place through its usual process of electronic and telephone voting.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.