How Sandra Day O'Connor Busted Our Union
by Kathy Wilkes
(Reprinted from an original post on the Daily Kos, 2005, shortly after O'Connor retired)
The accolades heaped on retiring Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor by politicos of every stripe ring hollow for thousands of us who once worked at Western Airlines. O'Connor, you see, busted our union and did it in a way that reeked of collusion and conflict of interest.
I was a co-founder and officer of Air Transport Employees (ATE), an independent union formed by ground service workers at Western's facilities throughout the West, Midwest, Hawaii and Canada. Our membership, about 5000, included everyone who moved on the ground except maintenance and food service: reservations, ticket counter, customer service, air freight, baggage, computer services, clerks, ground hostesses--you name it.
We also had the best contract in the industry, bar none. It included a guarantee that, in the event of a merger, our contract would be recognized by the surviving entity, until a representation election could be held to determine whether workers in the new company wanted a union. Fairly straightforward, one would think. But there's an old saying in the labor movement: "A contract is a contract unless it's a union contract."
Sometime in late 1986, Delta Airlines announced a planned takeover of Western effective April 1, 1987. We, the union, immediately put Western on notice that we expected our merger protection to be upheld. Basically, they told us to @!$%# off. The words, of course, were shrouded in all the necessary legalese, but that's what it amounted to. Further, they said, they would not even arbitrate the issue, which was another right under our contract: to file grievances (which we did) and to have them adjudicated within a certain period of time by an arbitrator--all plainly spelled out in our contract, unequivocal, tons of precedent, yadda, yadda, yadda.
Still, they refused, forcing us to file a lawsuit on the grounds that Western's refusal to arbitrate constituted a "major dispute" under existing labor law that required, not another grievance, but a court order for (1) injunctive relief against the merger, pending (2) the arbitration of the merger protections of our contract.
Company lawyers succeeded in dragging the case out for months; the Teamsters also had the same beef we did, and our lawsuits against Western were combined. Meanwhile Delta and Western continued on their merry way as if there were no pending court action, no pending grievances and absolutely nothing in their way. We were, in their eyes, a minor irritation, rather like a gnat being swatted by the tail of water buffalo.
As the days, weeks and months passed, the airlines were busy changing logos, ordering uniforms, sending out layoff notices, amending vendor contracts, and taking out ads announcing the New & Improved Delta Airlines! The heavily union Western would be gobbled up like a sardine in the jaws of mighty and mostly nonunion Delta.
Secretly, some Delta ground service employees were looking forward to the possibility--their first ever--of voting for a union. ATE officers (including yours truly) traveled to key Delta cities to talk to workers there, bringing along, of course, our outstanding contract. There was interest, but most Delta workers were just too afraid to talk to us. Meanwhile, many of our members at Western were wondering what was going to happen to all their work rules, especially their seniority rights, after the merger. To say it was a frenetic period of time is an understatement.
Fast forward to March 31, 1987: Just twelve hours before the merger was to take effect, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with us: they stayed the merger and ordered arbitration. We were jubilant, even knowing that this was just one battle we had won. The real war would be winning over the hearts and minds of the much larger group of nonunion Delta workers later on. But, for now, we thought, we at least got to live to fight.
The airlines immediately appealed the decision to the Supreme Court. Mind you, this was in the dead of night. Conveniently Sandra Day O'Connor was ready to not only receive their appeal, but to rule on it while the rest of the court was asleep...or whatever they were doing in the wee hours. We had not even seen the companies' appeal when she issued her eleventh hour ruling. She lifted the stay, the merger went down as scheduled, Western Airlines disappeared and with it our contract. With Western gone, there was no one to arbitrate with, no one to sue. We were toast.
The cruelest cut of all came later in the day when our attorneys told us that O'Connor had once worked for the law firm that was representing Delta Airlines in the merger--not as a lawyer back in those days when women were pretty much barred from the bar, but as a secretary! It all became very clear to us then. As far as we were concerned, "Sandy" was still taking dictation.
Of course the full court upheld her decision--about two days after she made it and Western was completely obliterated. Once we finally got a copy of her ruling, I must have read it a hundred times. Such tortured rationale, such arrogance, such manipulative interpretation to get to the desired conclusion (not unlike her vote in the 2000 presidential election debacle). But it affirmed what we had been told all along: A contract is a contract unless it's a union contract.