On February 18, 2014, in Herrera v. Command Security Corp. d/b/a Aviation Safeguards, 2:12-cv-10968-SVW-RZx, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California ruled that an employer’s withdrawal of voluntary recognition of a union and rejection of its collective bargaining agreement (CBA) could not be challenged in court as a violation of the “status quo” provisions of the Railway Labor Act (RLA).

In Herrera, the court considered the following basic facts: the employer, Aviation Safeguards, voluntarily recognized the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) based on authorization cards obtained by SEIU from a majority of Aviation Safeguards employees. Aviation Safeguards then entered into a CBA with SEIU, but, before the end of the CBA (or “amendable date” in RLA-speak), Aviation Safeguards and some of its employees decided that SEIU no longer enjoyed support from a majority of Aviation Safeguards employees. Aviation Safeguards made its case to its employees and eventually received a union removal petition signed by a majority of its employees. At that point, Aviation Safeguards withdrew recognition and terminated the CBA.

SEIU and individual Aviation Safeguards employees challenged Aviation Safeguards’ actions in court, claiming Aviation Safeguards violated the RLA’s prohibition on changing terms to a CBA (the “status quo” obligation) without first going through the process outlined in the RLA (e.g., filing notices, bargaining, mediation). The court rejected this argument, determining the case presented a question about the union representation (or lack thereof) of Aviation Safeguards employees rather than about Aviation Safeguards’ breach of the status quo obligation. Under the RLA, questions about which union (if any) represents a group of employees are within the exclusive jurisdiction of the National Mediation Board (NMB). The court thus concluded it had no authority to grant relief under the RLA.

In so deciding, the court addressed the union’s argument that because of the voluntary recognition and the existing CBA, the employees who did not want the union were required to go to the NMB to remove the union before Aviation Safeguards could reject the CBA. The court disagreed and observed that because the union was voluntarily recognized and did not have a representation certification from the NMB, once representation was questioned the onus was on the pro-union employees to apply to the NMB to confirm representation rather than the other way around. The court also noted that the NMB did not have independent authority to initiate the process for determining representation.

The union and employees also claimed that Aviation Safeguards violated the RLA’s prohibition on employer interference with its employees’ choice of a labor representative. The court did not rule on the merits of the RLA interference claims because it determined the union and employees filed suit after expiration of the six-month statute of limitation applicable to RLA interference claims.

This case raises some interesting considerations for voluntary recognition under the RLA. As the court points out, voluntary recognition is permitted under the RLA, and the NMB will treat voluntarily recognized unions much the same as certified unions most of the time. But the Herrera decision suggests a court’s options are limited if the employer or its employees decide they no longer want union representation. Thus, the decision highlights some of the risks for unions—and potential flexibility for employers—when a union seeks voluntary recognition rather than following a more traditional route to an NMB certification.

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