(CN) - Workers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport were properly stopped from striking over the suspension of a safety advocate, the 9th Circuit ruled Friday.
Air Craft Service International Group (ASIG), which provides aircraft refueling and other services at Sea-Tac, suspended Alex Popescu in September 2012 for allegedly "screaming obscenities at his supervisor."
Noting that the suspension came just two days after the workplace safety advocate's appearance before the Seattle Port Commission, however, Popescu and other ASIG employees called the discipline retaliatory.
Absent Popescu's reinstatement, various ASIG employees worked with labor organizer Jonathan Rosenblum and the group Working Washington to plan a strike. After Rosenblum told the press in October 2012 that a strike was imminent, ASIG sued him, along with Popescu, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters' local chapter and Working Washington.
Claiming that a strike would be illegal under the Railway Labor Act (RLA), ASIG sought a temporary restraining order to head off the employees' plans. U.S. District Judge James Robart in turn issued a preliminary strike injunction to "maintain the status quo pending the outcome of a hearing to determine whether a preliminary injunction should issue."
On appeal, Popescu, Rosenblum and Working Washington argued that Robart lacked jurisdiction to prohibit a strike and that, even if he didn't, the injunction was overbroad and violated their First Amendment rights.
A divided three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit unanimously affirmed on Friday, noting that the Norris-LaGuardia Act generally bars federal courts from halting strikes but does not cancel out the requirements of the RLA. One such requirement states that employees must appoint a representative and bargain with an employer prior to striking.
"Here, the employees are unwilling to even 'go through the motions' under the RLA; rather, they wish not to bargain but to strike," Judge N. Randy Smith wrote for the majority. "In so doing, they present the very situation for which Congress enacted the RLA: carrier employees collectively threatening a strike capable of single-handedly interrupting interstate commerce by shutting down an airport."
Robart's injunction also is not as broad as the workers have claimed, according to the Seattle-based court's ruling.
"The Employees and Working Washington contend this injunction impermissibly extends to 'constitutionally protected speech, expressive activity and association - including, for example, rallies, public demonstrations, consumer boycotts, banners, signs, leaflets, petitions, press releases, news broadcasts, interviews, websites and social media - that could be construed as promoting or encouraging current or future group action by ASIG employees,'" Smith wrote. "However, the injunction, by its terms, fails to be as broad as the Employees and Working Washington make it out to be. Instead, the injunction is much more limited. Reading it plainly, the Employees cannot strike against ASIG, and neither they nor Working Washington may encourage as much. Other than that, the Employees and Working Washington may freely exercise their First Amendment rights in seeking better working conditions at ASIG and anywhere else."
Writing in dissent, Judge Milan Smith argued that the appeals court lacked jurisdiction to consider the issue and bemoaned the "reinsertion of federal courts into the 'labor injunction business.'"
"Surely if 'every reasonable effort' requires the Fuellers to seek a representative before they can strike, the same language in the NLGA requires ASIG to at least make some effort to resolve the dispute before seeking the drastic remedy of a labor injunction," Smith wrote. "Accordingly, ASIG has not fulfilled its obligations under Section 8 of the NLGA, the district court did not have jurisdiction to issue the injunction in this case, and the injunction issued by the district court should be vacated."
David Dean, of James & Hoffman in Washington D.C. argued the case for the defendants, and Douglas Hall, of FordHarrison in Washington, D.C., appeared for the plaintiffs. Neither immediately returned a request for comment.