PASADENA, Calif. (CN) — The Ninth Circuit ruled Wednesday that a union for Los Angeles airport workers brought timely claims and indeed should have won summary judgment.
In 2008, the United Service Workers West of the Service Employees International Union began representing the Los Angeles International Airport employees of Aviation Safeguards, a company that provides, among other things, airport security services and acts as a division of Command Security Corporation.
Before the parties’ collective-bargaining agreement was set to expire in November 2012, Aviation Safeguards calculated that replacing the union could save the company $800,000 for 2012 in contributions to a health care trust fund. Rather than talk to union representatives, the company began extensive union-removal efforts in September 2011, court records show.
It hired a union-avoidance firm, held meetings during working hours that were secretly for the purpose of stirring up anti-union sentiment, and hired new employees and solicited their signatures for its union-removal petition. By December 2011, the company claimed to have the required number of signatures.
The next month, the union filed an application with the National Mediation Board, claiming it had a majority pro-union petition that began circulating soon after the company began its union-removal efforts.
In May 2012, the union claimed to have obtained 240 signed authorization cards from employees. It said that between the cards and its petition, it had 139 pro-union signatures of employees who had previously signed the anti-union petition, thus revoking their anti-union signatures.
When Aviation Safeguards refused to mediate in June, United Service Workers West filed Railway Labor Act, or RLA, complaints for coercion and interference, failure to mediate and status-quo violations.
A federal judge, however, dismissed the coercion and interference complaint as untimely under the RLA’s six-month statute of limitations and granted summary judgment to Aviation Safeguards.
Senior Judge Harry Pregerson, in delivering the Ninth Circuit panel’s unanimous decision, wrote Wednesday that the union was entitled to equitable tolling of the deadline. Aviation Safeguards mostly likely knew about the union’s position in September 2011, the ruling states.
“Further, the union’s delay in filing its federal claims reasonably resulted from its reliance on the remedies set forth in the RLA,” Pregerson wrote. “The mediation board’s pre-docketing investigation lasted nearly six months. At no point during that time did Aviation Safeguards indicate a refusal to mediate. Aviation Safeguards waited until after the mediation board finished its nearly six-month pre-docketing investigation before informing the union that it would not participate in mediation. The union should not be punished for the mediation board’s or Aviation Safeguards’s delays.”
Considering the merits of the case, the three-judge panel found that Aviation Safeguards coerced its employees into decertifying their union.
“Aviation Safeguards did not just ‘directly aid employees in revoking their union authorization,’ it initiated and orchestrated the entire removal effort,” Pregerson wrote.
Furthermore, the district court erroneously ruled that it lacked jurisdiction over the union’s complaint for status-quo violations, reasoning that it was a representation dispute.
“Aviation Safeguards claims that the union lost majority support, and that this change in support justified its removal of the union,” Pregerson wrote. “However, Aviation Safeguards constructed the dispute with the union by creating the union removal petition and unlawfully soliciting Aviation Safeguards’s employees to sign it. Aviation Safeguards cannot manufacture a representation dispute.”
Rather, the company’s refusal to recognize the union and altering employees’ working benefits constituted a major dispute, the Ninth Circuit found, but the district court will have to determine on remand whether the status-quo claim was timely.
The company’s refusal to mediate is a violation as well, Wednesday’s ruling states, and the district court was ordered on remand to grant summary judgment to the union on that claim.
David Dean from James & Hoffman PC in Washington represented the union. Mark Spring from Carothers Disante & Freudenberger LLP in Sacramento, Calif., represented Command Security.
Antonio Ruiz from Weinberg Roger & Rosenfeld PC in Alameda, Calif., also represented the union.
Ruiz said he is thrilled with the Ninth Circuit decision and that it was refreshing to see the ruling address some “pretty significant and nasty anti-union activity” from a company that did not go through the proper decertification process.
It will also be, he said, a far-reaching and consequential decision.
“This is going to be the first court of appeals decision that deals with that issue of the status of voluntarily recognized unions under the RLA,” Ruiz said.
Darin Dalmat with a Seattle branch of James & Hoffman said that Pregerson’s opinion was very well-reasoned and will help airport workers across the country.
“It gives them a feasible path to organize and clarifies the law in an important way…[We hope] that AVSG will negotiate in good faith with us and cut a deal that reflects the hard work the AVSG workers at LAX have done over the years,” he said, referring to Aviation Safeguards.
None of the other attorneys involved in the case could be reached for comment Wednesday.
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