In a major setback for organized labor, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that employees who cross the picket line during a strike can keep their jobs, displacing returning strikers with more seniority.
The 6-3 decision was the latest in a series of high court rulings that have cut back on the legal rights of unions and their members during and after a strike, giving business more economic leverage during contract negotiations.
Although the case was brought under the Railway Labor Act, which specifically covers airlines and railroads, the court’s opinion will also set labor law precedent for other industries.
The justices overturned a ruling last May by a U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Louis that would have required Trans World Airlines Inc. to hire back about 1,500 flight attendants who went on strike and to pay them about $55 million in back pay.
The case stemmed from a bitter, 10-week strike that began March 7, 1986, involving a dispute over wage and benefit concessions demanded by the airline’s owner, corporate raider Carl Icahn.
During the strike, TWA hired more than 1,200 new flight attendants and instituted the lower wages and longer hours that it was seeking. About 1,200 union members crossed the picket line and continued working.
The court majority, consisting of its conservative justices, held that there was nothing in the federal common labor law indicating that TWA’s policy was unlawful.
“An employer is not required by the (Railway Labor Act) to lay off junior crossover employees in order to reinstate more senior full-term strikers at the conclusion of the strike,” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote for the court majority in the 16-page opinion.
Even though the company’s action encouraged workers to cross the picket line, O’Connor said TWA was simply carrying out its lawful economic power.
The ruling provoked a strongly worded dissent from Justice William J. Brennan Jr., who said that the company’s policy illegally discriminated against the strikers and that such bias is “inherently destructive” of the right to strike.
“I would favor--and I believe Congress has provided for--the rule that errs on the side of preferring solidarity and seniority rather than a rule that would permit the employer to discriminate on the basis of protected union activity,” said Brennan, the court’s leading liberal member.
He said the court’s decision “will mean that an employee of only six months’ experience, who abandoned the strike one day before it ended, could displace a 20-year veteran who chose to remain faithful to the decision made collectively with her fellow workers until the group as a whole decided to end the strike.”