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Delta Airlines Dispute Renews Debate over Organized Labor

Recent events suggest that small businesses shouldn't look at union organizing as just a big-business issue.


The future of labor unions in the United States is under scrutiny again, as the National Mediation Board takes up a dispute over an attempt to organize a union at Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines, Inc. last fall. Even though that case is strictly big-business, it is another signal that the rules for U.S. labor unions are in woeful need of revision.

A Wall Street Journal article reports that the board believes it has reason to investigate allegations that Delta interfered with an attempt to organize flight attendants, ramp workers, and reservation/gate agents at the airline. That attempt, which would have covered more than 50,000 workers, failed last fall. The article quotes a letter written by the board's general counsel: "After reviewing the submissions provided by AFA [Association of Flight Attendants] and Delta, I find that in order for the board to determine whether the laboratory conditions were tainted, further investigation is needed."

There has been plenty of coverage about anti-union sentiment in the past six months. Perhaps no situation is as contentious as the one going on in Wisconsin, where state legislators passed a law in March 2011 approving what were described as "sweeping" restrictions on public-sector unions -- including limits on collective bargaining. There is much more to come in that situation. Just last week, a Wisconsin judge overturned the law, citing the way in which the law was pushed through the legislature -- not necessarily the content of the law itself. Next up: the state's Supreme Court.

Mind you, much of the actual activity with respect to regulating unions has been focused on the public sector as state lawmakers try to figure out ways to cut spending in any way that they can. But the Delta situation is worth watching as a litmus test for the federal government's position on unions in the private sector. Best I can figure, based on the coverage of the Delta situation, the Obama administration remains a supporter of organized labor. Of course, that is my read of the situation, and I don't have that from the horse's mouth.

If you write off labor unions as a big business issue, think again. One development you should watch, in particular, is a case being considered by the National Labor Relations Board that would decide whether or not labor unions have the right to break chunks of your workforce up into "micro" unions that consist of as few as five or 10 workers. That would allow unions to work their way into a company in increments.

Regardless, all this activity should have you soul-searching your own stance with respect to unions, since it is bound to be an issue in the 2012 election. Are unions the best strategy for your workforce? Are you seen as a supporter or obstacle? 

Heather Clancy is an award-winning business journalist with a passion for small businesses, green technology and corporate sustainability issues. Her articles have appeared in Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, The International Herald Tribune and The New York Times. Follow her on Twitter.


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