One Muslim flight attendant for an airline that’s shut down during Covid-19 wants the Supreme Court to let her sue because crewmembers were required to serve drinks to passengers and she wasn’t given a religious exemption from doing so.
Now another flight attendant is claiming a religious exemption, this time arguing that as a Christian she shouldn’t be required to pay union dues. The union offered to let her direct her dues to charity from April 2019 onward, but not exempt her from prior dues.
Compulsory union membership is illegal in 28 states (‘Right to Work’ laws) where paying union dues cannot be required as a condition of employment. In 2018 the Supreme Court ruled in Janus vs AFSCME that government workers could not be compelled to pay union dues as a condition of employment either. However airline employees are not government employees, and state labor laws don’t trump the Railway Labor Act. And so compulsory union membership, when a majority of a work group have opted for one, remains in place for flight attendants and other aviation workers.
If compulsory union dues are forced speech, as the Court has suggested, and the federal government were to require airline unions that would indeed be legally problematic. However there are largely non-union airlines like Delta. The flight attendant plaintiff in this case chose to work for Allegiant, but began work there before a union contract was in place (though after flight attendants had voted to unionize). It’s unclear how unions are un-Christian, and thus how compulsory unionism violates a sincerely held religious belief as claimed here.
The contention appears to be,
- Stating a religious objection is sufficient and neither the employer nor union should be able to inquire further or contest it
- The Railway Labor Act does permit requiring union membership for continued employment but the flight attendant here was never going to be fired – just not allowed to bid for a schedule. As a result the RLA doesn’t come into play and shouldn’t trump the state Right to Work law where the flight attendant lives.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigated an earlier complaint, was unable to resolve it, but found sufficient merit to issue a “Right to Sue” letter so the federal government has found some merit in the arguments thus far. Winning this case would represent an existential threat to airline unions. It seems a long shot, however.
(HT: Paddle Your Own Kanoo)