Judge Rules Southwest Flight Attendant’s Federal Lawsuit Against Airline and Union for Illegal Firing Will Continue

Staff Report | DFW Newsflash | February 2019

A federal judge has ordered that Southwest Airlines flight attendant Charlene Carter’s lawsuit against her employer and a union will continue, ruling that Carter’s charges are sufficient to establish a case that she was fired for voicing her religious and political beliefs, including her support of a National Right to Work law.

Carter filed her lawsuit with free legal aid from National Right to Work Foundation staff attorneys against Southwest Airlines (NYSE:LUV) and Transport Workers Union of America (TWUA) Local 556. Although Southwest and TWUA Local 556 attempted to have her charges dismissed, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas has ruled that her lawsuit will continue.

As a Southwest employee, Carter joined TWUA Local 556 in September 1996. A pro-life Christian, she resigned her membership in September 2013 after learning that her union dues were being used to promote causes that violate her conscience, such as abortion. 

Carter resigned from union membership but was still forced to pay fees to TWUA Local 556 as a condition of her employment. State Right to Work laws do not protect her from forced union fees because airline and railway employees are covered by the federal Railway Labor Act (RLA). The RLA allows union officials to have a worker fired for refusing to pay union dues or fees. But it does protect the rights of employees to remain nonmembers of the union, to criticize the union and its leadership, and advocate in favor of changing the union’s current leadership.

Carter became a vocal supporter of a campaign to recall the TWUA Local 556 Executive Board, including its president, Audrey Stone.

Carter’s pleadings describe how, in the year leading up to the lawsuit, Southwest subjected 13 supporters of the recall campaign to disciplinary measures, including fact-findings, suspension, and even termination of employment, many times at the request of TWUA Local 556 members and officials.

The lawsuit alleges that, in contrast, when complaints were filed against the Executive Board’s supporters for their social media activity, including death threats, threats of violence, obscene language, and sexual harassment, those employees were either not disciplined or were allowed to keep their jobs.

In January 2017, Carter learned that President Stone and other TWUA Local 556 officials used union dues to attend the “Women’s March on Washington D.C.,” which was sponsored by political groups she opposed, including Planned Parenthood. Carter’s lawsuit alleges that Southwest knew of the TWUA Local 556 activities and participation in the Women’s March and helped accommodate TWUA Local 556 members wishing to attend the protest by allowing them to give their work shifts to other employees not attending the protest. Carter sent President Stone private Facebook messages sharply criticizing the union and its support for pro-abortion activity. President Stone never responded to Carter.

Shortly thereafter, in February 2017, Carter received an email from TWUA Local 556 urging her to oppose a National Right to Work Bill. Carter responded with an email to President Stone declaring her support for Right to Work and the Executive Board recall effort.

Days after sending Stone that email, Carter was notified by Southwest managers that they needed to have a mandatory meeting as soon as possible about “Facebook posts they had seen.” During this meeting, Southwest presented Carter screenshots of her pro-life posts and messages and questioned why she did them. Carter explained her religious beliefs and opposition to the union’s political activities. Carter said that, by participating in the Women’s March, President Stone and TWUA Local 556 members purported to be representing all Southwest flight attendants. Southwest authorities told Carter that President Stone claimed to be harassed by these messages.

A week after this meeting, Southwest fired Carter. Southwest said she violated its “Workplace Bullying and Hazing Policy” and “Social Media Policy,” because her pro-life Facebook posts were “highly offensive” and her Facebook messages to President Stone were “harassing and inappropriate.”  Prior to her termination Carter had never received any discipline in her 20-year career with Southwest.

In 2017, Carter filed her federal lawsuit with help from Foundation staff attorneys to challenge the firing as an abuse of her rights, alleging she lost her job because she stood up to TWUA Local 556 and criticized the union for its political activities and how it spent employees’ money.

Southwest and TWUA Local 556 moved to dismiss her claims, but the federal district court ruled that Carter’s allegations establish “more than a sheer possibility” that union officials retaliated against her and that Southwest fired her for opposing union leadership and engaging in activities the RLA protects.

The Court also denied Southwest’s motion to dismiss Carter’s claim that Southwest discriminated against her religious beliefs in violation of Title VII of the Civil Right Act of 1964, as Carter has established “more than a sheer possibility” that her religious beliefs and practices were a factor in Southwest’s decision to fire her. Carter also claims that TWUA Local 556 discriminated against her religious beliefs by complaining about her pro-life messages in order to get Southwest to fire her, but union officials did not ask the court to dismiss that claim.

“This case shows the extent to which union officials will wield their power over employers to violate the rights’ of the workers they claim to represent,” said Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Foundation. “Charlene Carter merely voiced her opinion and opposition to her money being used for causes she opposes, expressing her protected religious beliefs.

“A victory in this lawsuit would send a strong message that this type of abuse of union monopoly power will not go unchallenged, but ultimately it is up to Congress to end Big Labor’s power to force its representation on workers who oppose it and then add insult to injury by forcing workers under threat of termination to pay money to a union they oppose,” added Mix.

SOURCE: National Right to Work Foundation