The National Mediation Board (NMB) has offered a significant boost to unions in the United States, following an amendment to the Railway Labour Act.
Decades of practice have seen businesses counting those not casting ballots as ‘No’ votes in representation elections.
Following the decision, this practice has now been outlawed, with unions claiming it will lead to fairer elections.
“The old rules encouraged a climate of voter suppression because companies could prevent unions from forming by encouraging workers to simply sit out the election,” said Edward Wytkind, president of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO.
The NMB decision had been widely expected after the Obama administration installed a Democratic majority on the three-member panel last year.
Unions are considered staunch Democratic supporters.
The change potentially has the greatest significance for airlines operating in the United States, where unions representing thousands of flight attendants say they plan to test the measures as soon as possible.
Delta Air Lines - the world’s largest carrier and presently mostly non-union – could be the first hit.
JetBlue Airways and AirTran Holdings are also expecting industrial unrest following the decision.
However, airlines are already questioning the authority of the NMB to take such a decision, with the Air Transport Association (ATA) branding the move “substantively flawed”.
“We continue to believe the NMB does not have legal authority to implement this rule, one that undoubtedly will lead to more labour discord,” the ATA added in a statement.
The situation is a far cry from Great Britain, where the United union yesterday called 20 days of strike action at British Airways in a dispute over pay and conditions.