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Pilots Win Free Speech Suit; American Airlines Accepts Rules Protecting Dissident Communication in the Workplace

June 24, 1998

Pilots Win Free Speech Suit; American Airlines Accepts Rules Protecting Dissident Communication in the Workplace

WASHINGTON, D.C. In response to an unprecedented decision upholding the free speech rights of airline employees, American Airlines has conceded its pilots’ rights to criticize their union and employer in the workplace.

According to Paul Alan Levy of Public Citizen’s Litigation Group, who represented the individual pilots who brought the case, “This settlement brings American Airlines into line with the free speech rules that workers in most private sector workplaces enjoy under the National Labor Relations Act, while guaranteeing an enforcement procedure that is far more swift and certain than the NLRB.”

Under rules adopted in the settlement of a lawsuit today, pilots must be allowed to distribute leaflets in the airlines operations areas at every airport that American serves. The pilots agreed to limit their free speech activities to locations that will not disrupt safe and efficient operations, while American pledged that even if one pilot abuses his free speech rights that will not excuse denying free speech to all other employees.

The rules also provide expedited arbitration, similar to a TRO (temporary restraining order) proceeding in court if speech rights are denied during union elections or ratification votes, or if it is even claimed that a group of pilots are being denied the right to speak. Departing from the usual labor law rule that only a union can go to arbitration, any pilot whose rights are denied may invoke expedited arbitration.

The case arose during a 1997 referendum conducted by the Allied Pilots Association (APA) over ratification of a collective bargaining agreement for American’s 9,000 pilots. After a proposed contract was voted down by a large margin, dissident pilots began an intense campaign to defeat a second proposal. In response, the airline, alleging that a few pilots at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport had been disruptive, issued an order forbidding any pilots at any airport from discussing the proposed contract. Candidates for union office associated with the anti-ratification campaign were also denied the right to campaign at work.

Four of the pilots who had been denied the right to speak filed suit against American in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. The suit alleged that American had interfered with their union activities and with the collective bargaining process in violation of the Railway Labor Act, which governs labor relations in the airline industry. They argued that the rules that govern workers’ right to speak to each other in most private workplaces, as applied under the Wagner Act, should apply to airline workers as well. The APA intervened to support the individual plaintiffs’ claims.

In a precedent-making decision on May 21, 1998, U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina refused American’s request that the case be dismissed. He agreed with the pilots that the Railway Labor Act protects workers’ rights even after a union is certified to represent them, and that claims under the statute may be pursued in court, not exclusively under the union contract. He set the case down for trial of whether the airline had discriminated against the pilots’ union activities but urged the parties to try to settle the case.

The parties then began intensive negotiations, with the assistance of D.C.-based mediator Linda R. Singer, Esquire, of ADR Associates, leading to the agreement that was announced today. Copies of the agreed rules and enforcement procedure, as well as statements from the four individual plaintiffs, are attached. Copies of Judge Urbina’s decision are also available on request.