July 19, 2022

Texas jury hands flight attendant $5.1 million win in fight over forced union fees

By Bethany Blankley

A jury in federal district court in Dallas unanimously sided with a former Southwest Airlines flight attendant, handing a stinging defeat to the airlines and union in a battle over forced union dues that’s gone on for five years.

Southwest issued a statement saying it plans to appeal the ruling and it “has a demonstrated history of supporting our employees’ rights to express their opinions when done in a respectful manner.” The union also said it plans to appeal, and a union attorney said the jurors “might have misunderstood the judge’s instructions,” CBS News DFW reported.

But according to the jury statement made available to The Center Square, jurors wrote in clear "yes" and "no" answers and dollar amounts to a total 32 questions. They provided clear responses to multiple questions asking for different dollar amounts, which totaled $950 million the jury determined the union owed for violating the law.

Charlene Carter successfully won her case in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas on July 14 after first suing the airlines and the Transport Union Workers of America (TWUA) Local 556 in 2017.

She alleged that Southwest Airlines discriminated against her religious beliefs, violating Title VII of the Civil Right Act of 1964 and the Local 556 violated the Railway Labor Act. The jury unanimously agreed.

She also filed a complaint with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission alleging employment discrimination in 2017 after she was fired for opposing union dues being used for causes that violated her conscience. She received free legal help from the National Right to Work Foundation.

Carter, a pro-life Christian who’d been a member of TWUA Local 556 since 1996, was forced to resign her membership in 2013, she says, after she learned that her union dues were supporting pro-abortion activities. She canceled her union membership but was still forced to pay union fees as a condition of employment.

Although Texas is a right to work state, state right to work laws don’t protect airline and railroad employees from paying forced union fees because they’re governed by the Railway Labor Act. The law allows union officials to have workers fired for refusing to pay union dues or fees.

After communicating with TWUA Local 556 President Audrey Stone about the union’s pro-abortion activity in 2017 and after supporting a recall effort of Stone, Carter claims she was fired. Her firing came after a five-year period of a labor dispute among the union and employees. The conflict resulted in at least 90 employees opting out of union membership, two board members being removed and replaced by two candidates from a losing party, including Stone. Employees filed a complaint with the Department of Labor, which was dismissed, and also unsuccessfully attempted to have Stone recalled.

Carter’s firing was prompted after she sent a private Facebook message to Stone expressing her pro-life views and opposition to union activity supporting abortion. Stone claimed she was harassing her and Carter was fired shortly thereafter. Stone alleged that Carter, who’d never received a disciplinary action in her 20-year-career, violated a “workplace bullying and hazing policy.” The jury found Stone’s claim baseless.

The jury also determined that Stone and Local 556 violated the Railway Labor Act by retaliating against Carter, and that Southwest violated Carter’s religious rights protected under Title VII. In addition to the dollar amounts the jury itemized totaling $950 million owed by the union, it found that Southwest should pay $3.5 million in punitive damages and $200,000 for future lost wages. It didn’t award nominal damages to be paid by Southwest.

Carter told The Center Square the win was “a victory for freedom of speech and religious beliefs. Flight attendants should have a voice and nobody should be able to retaliate against a flight attendant for engaging in protected speech against her union.”

The jury’s unanimous verdict was “long overdue,” National Right to Work Foundation President Mark Mix said. The jury vindicated “Ms. Carter’s fundamental right to dissent from the causes and ideas that TWU union officials – who claim to ‘represent’ Southwest flight attendants – support while forcing workers to bankroll their activities,” he added.

“No American worker should have to fear termination, intimidation, or any other reprisal merely for speaking out against having their own money spent, purportedly in their name, to promote an agenda they find abhorrent.

“Even with this basic right under the Railway Labor Act successfully defended, however, TWU union officials still enjoy the enormous government-granted privilege of being able to force airline workers to financially subsidize their activities as a condition of employment. While we’re proud to stand with Ms. Carter and are pleased by the verdict, there ultimately should be no place in American labor law for compelling workers to fund a private organization that violates their core beliefs.”

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