Senate Republicans on Thursday failed in their bid to overturn a new rule making it easier for unions to organize workers in the U.S. airline and railroad industries.
The Senate voted 56-43 against a Republican resolution that would have prevented the Obama administration from enforcing the rule.
The new rule, approved by the National Mediation Board in May, changes how votes are counted in union representation elections. It allows employees to unionize if a majority of those voting support the union.
Under the old rule -- in place for more than 75 years -- a majority of all workers in a unit had to favor union representation. That meant workers choosing not to vote were treated as "no" votes.
Advocates say the change makes elections more democratic and brings airlines and railroads in line with other industries, where the outcome is decided by majority vote.
But Republicans called it political payback to unions and argued that such a dramatic change in the way votes are counted should rest with Congress, rather than a politically appointed board.
"There is no sound legal or policy basis for hastily changing a rule that has been in place and upheld repeatedly for over 75 years," said Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Repulican.
Opponents claim the rule change will lead to more labor strife, lower pay and burdensome work rules. Republicans also argued that a higher threshold for counting votes was reasonable for airline and railroad workers because rules governing those industries do not allow workers to vote out, or decertify, a union once it is in place.
Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin said the 75-year history of the old rule was irrelevant in evaluating its fairness.
"Our country has rightly eliminated many flawed election rules when circumstances change, and it is time to discard this one too," Harkin said.
The main impact of the change is at Delta Air Lines Inc., where unions are trying to organize thousands of flight attendants, gate agents and ramp workers. Delta voted down six unionization drives since 2000 under the old rules, but union officials are optimistic about votes taking place later this year.
"The Obama Administration has chosen to tilt the outcome of unionization elections at Delta in favor of the transit unions," said Isakson, who hails from the state where Delta is based.
President Obama had threatened to veto the resolution if it passed. But it was always considered a long shot in the Senate and it is unlikely to come up in the House.
In June, a federal district judge rejected a challenge to the new rule by an airline industry trade group. Most major airlines are already unionized.