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FAA funding bill limits labor unions

Union workers hold signs at the construction site of a new 236-foot FAA control tower at Oakland International Airport over the need for a long term solution to fund the FAA.

After five years of arguing, a pile of stop-gap funding measures, and complaints from labor unions, Congress has come up with a roadmap governing air travel in America.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) gets its funding. GPS navigation will play a much bigger role in our skies. And the legislation requires that within five years, robots will be permitted to share more of American skies.

The Senate passed the measure 75-20 Monday.

A huge stumbling block in the passage of the legislation had to do with labor unions, specifically, how many votes employees need to unionize. Under this legislation employees would need more signatures than they did in the past.

"In terms of private employment in the United States, the airline industry is really one of the few industries where unions are still very important," said Seth Kaplan, with the trade magazine "Airline Weekly."

Labor unions argue that they weren't consulted as lawmakers crafted this compromise. And they say that this bill - which is a funding bill - isn't the place for a provision like this one.

"This reauthorization bill has made that incredibly difficult - much harder than it has to be," said Candice Johnson, with the Communications Workers of America. "All because of ideology, not because there should have been anything in the bill that dealt with this issue at all."

Another controversial element in the bill has to do with the use of drones in U.S. airspace. The bill says that a plan has to be in place within the next few years to allow more use of drones for domestic use.

Once strictly a military technology, now everyone from scientists to police departments want to use drones for research and surveillance.

David Brancaccio: There are times to go retro: An antique radio is always nice. But when it comes to America's air traffic system, there's a strong argument for keeping technology up to date.

After five years of wrangling, and nearly two dozen stop-gap spending measures, Congress has passed a bill to give the Federal Aviation Administration money and a roadmap to the 21st century, already. But some labor unions say they lose out under the legislation.

Marketplace's David Gura is live in Washington. David, good morning.

David Gura: Good Morning.

Brancaccio: So what are the labor unions upset about?

Gura: Well they say that part of this bill is going to make it more difficult for airline employees to unionize. If there's a vote under this legislation, employees would need more signatures than they did in the past.

Now labor unions aren't happy about that of course, but this whole process has really upset them. They say they were sidelined from the start. They weren't brought into this process at the beginning. They weren't consulted as lawmakers crafted this compromise. And they say that this bill - which is a funding bill - isn't the place for a provision like this one.

Brancaccio: So tell me, is the issue of labor unions more significant in the airline industry compared to other sectors in the economy?

Gura: This new rule, this provision about how many votes you need to start a union, it would affect both airlines and railroads. I talked to Seth Kaplan, he's with "Airline Weekly" down in Fr. Lauderdale, Flor., and he says organized labor is still a huge part of commercial aviation.

Seth Kaplan: In terms of private employment in the United States, the airline industry is really one of the few industries where unions are still very important.

Gura: Of course there are other industries that are unionized: Detroit, the auto industry, there are a lot of goverment unions still. But in commercial aviation today, most of the big players are still union.

Brancaccio: Marketplace's David Gura in Washington, thank you.

Gura: Thank you.

About the author

David Gura is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the Washington, D.C. bureau.
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