Compromise boosts prospects for FAA bill passage

Lawmakers reached a compromise Friday that toughens the rules airline and railroad workers must follow to hold union elections, boosting prospects for passage of a long-term funding plan for the Federal Aviation Administration, congressional aides said.

The compromise — negotiated primarily between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio — was the most contentious of a handful of unresolved issues holding up passage of an FAA bill. The issue was partly responsible for a standoff between Senate Democrats and House Republicans last summer that led to a two-week partial shutdown of the FAA, including the furlough of nearly 4,000 workers.

The Republican-controlled House was insisting the FAA bill include language to overturn a 2010 National Mediation Board ruling allowing airline workers to form a union by a simple majority of those who voted in the election. Prior to that, workers who didn't vote were treated as "no" votes, making it possible for a union to lose an election even with the support of a majority of those voting.

With Democrats adamant that the board's ruling must stand, Republicans dropped their demand in exchange for concessions that are likely to be less troublesome to labor.

The compromise reached Friday would require that 50 percent of a company's workers indicate support for holding an election to form a new union before a vote can be held. Currently, the threshold is a 35 percent show of support — usually by workers signing cards — in order to hold an election. Many unions won't go ahead with an election without a 50 percent show of support, anyway, Democrats said.

Another change would allow for a run-off election between the top two vote-getters, even if one of those two is the option of "no union." And, the mediation board would have to hold a public hearing before making a significant rule change.

The board oversees only labor matters in the airline and railroad industries. The National Labor Relations Board handles most other industries.

Most airline and railroad workers are already unionized. The mediation board's ruling primarily affected Delta Air Lines, where flight attendants have made several unsuccessful attempts to form a union.

The compromise is "a good example of the common-sense results that Democrats and Republicans can produce when they work together, and put the interests of the American people ahead of scoring political points," Reid said in a statement.

Justin Harclerode, a spokesman for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said it's unprecedented to include mediation board reforms in an FAA bill.

"We can now move ahead on this critical infrastructure measure that will help create jobs, modernize our nation's air traffic control system, and reduce the size of government," he said.

Long-term operating authority for the FAA expired in 2007. The FAA has been limping along since then under a series of 22 short-term extensions at the same time the agency is in the middle of a transition from an air traffic control system based on World War II-era radar technology to a satellite-based system. The latest extension is due to expire on Jan. 31.

Last spring, the House passed an FAA bill that authorizes spending $59 billion over four years; the Senate approved a two-year, $34 billion measure.

Most of the differences between the two bills have been resolved over months of negotiations. The few remaining differences aren't likely to be obstacles to final passage of a bill, lawmakers and aviation industry lobbyists have said.