The Railway Labor Act (RLA) did not require Allegiant Air to maintain the status quo with respect to work rules negotiated with an uncertified employee advocacy group during bargaining for a first contract with the Teamsters, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled on June 8, 2015. Int’l Bhd. of Teamsters v. Allegiant Air, LLC, 9th Cir. No. 14-16465.

Following certification by the National Mediation Board (NMB) of the Teamsters as the representative of Allegiant’s pilots, Allegiant unilaterally changed its policies regarding pilots who lost their medical certificate, pay for employees engaged in collective bargaining, scheduling and leave for new parents. Although the Ninth Circuit previously held that the RLA does not require carriers to maintain the status quo during negotiations for an initial labor agreement, see Int’l Bhd. of Teamsters v. N. Am. Airlines, 518 F.3d 1052 (9th Cir. 2008), the district court below held that Allegiant’s work rules were negotiated with another bargaining representative, the Allegiant Air Pilots Advocacy Group (AAPAG), and therefore, enjoined Allegiant for modifying the rules without exhausting the RLA’s Section 6 bargaining process.

On appeal, the principle issue before the Court was whether AAPAG constituted a bargaining representative within the meaning of the RLA, such that the rules it negotiated with Allegiant would be protected from unilateral change as an RLA collective bargaining agreement. As an initial matter, the Court rejected Allegiant’s argument that AAPAG’s status as an RLA representative fell within exclusive jurisdiction of the NMB, and therefore, could not be decided by the federal courts. As a matter of first impression, the Court held that, although the NMB exercised sole jurisdiction to adjudicate current representation disputes, there was no jurisdictional bar against federal courts deciding the status of past labor representatives. The Court further rejected Allegiant’s argument that the NMB’s classification of the pilots as unrepresented (in the context of the recent Teamsters election) was entitled to preclusive effect, because Allegiant failed to raise the issue in its initial briefing.

On the core issue of AAPAG’s status, several factors suggested that it was not an RLA representative even though it was elected by Allegiant’s pilots for the purpose of negotiating terms and conditions of their employment. AAPAG referred to itself as a "consulting agency." Its 49-page negotiated Work Rules agreement expressly disclaimed that it was not a "contract." During the Teamsters’ campaign, AAPAG claimed that the pilots did not have a legally binding contract and several AAPAG officers, as well as the Teamsters, considered the pilots unrepresented. Ultimately, however, the Court adopted the bright-line rule that an organization can become an RLA representative only through certification by the NMB or through voluntary recognition, the latter of which will be found only when; (i) the organization unequivocally demands RLA recognition from the carrier, (ii) the carrier unequivocally grants recognition and (iii) the organization makes a contemporaneous showing that it enjoys majority support among the workforce. Such a bright-line rule was necessary, the Court reasoned, because the outcome of a variety of disputes that might come before the federal courts could hinge on the RLA status of a labor organization (for example, whether a court may enjoin a strike or whether an alleged breach of an agreement states a legal claim in contract or instead is reserved for RLA arbitration). Absent certification from the NMB, therefore, the Allegiant Air Court’s ruling permits federal courts to find RLA representative status through voluntary recognition only in narrow circumstances where the facts are so unequivocal that no genuine question of representation could exist.