A federal jury awarded $5.1 million to a flight attendant who was fired after she sent pro-life messages to her union president, the National Right to Work (NRTW) Legal Defense Foundation announced.
The flight attendant worked for Southwest Airlines and was a member of its union – the Transportation Workers Union of America (TWU) Local 556 – until 2013.
She resigned after she learned TWU dues supported social causes that didn’t align with her Christian values. Even though she left the union, she still had to pay fees in lieu of union dues as a condition of her employment as a flight attendant. (As an FYI, airline and railway employees fall under the Railway Labor Act (RLA), which means they aren’t protected by state Right to Work laws.)
Worker opposed union activity
As a non-union member, the flight attendant was involved in various efforts aimed at TWU and its then-president, Audrey Stone. Things escalated in January 2017, when the flight attendant learned Stone and other Southwest flight attendants participated in the Women’s March on Washington, D.C.
Planned Parenthood was an “exclusive premiere” sponsor. Stone and other employees marched with a banner that read “TWU Local 556 Working Women’s Committee, The Union of Southwest Airlines Flight Attendants.” TWU used dues and fees to pay for its expenses associated with the Women’s March.
The flight attendant wasn’t happy when she learned about TWU’s participation in the Women’s March. She sent several Facebook messages to Stone. They contained criticism and videos of “aborted bab[ies].” One message, in part, read: “This is what you supported during your Paid Leave with others at the Women’s MARCH in DC…. You truly are Despicable in so many ways.”
Stone reported the messages to Southwest. It investigated the situation and determined the flight attendant violated company policies on bullying and the use of social media. It fired the flight attendant on March 16.
She filed a grievance, and the parties arbitrated the dispute. The arbitrator found Southwest had “just cause” to terminate the flight attendant under the collective bargaining agreement.
Dispute lands in court
She sued Southwest and TWU, alleging religious discrimination and retaliation claims. Specifically, she asserted religious discrimination claims in violation of Title VII. She claimed Southwest fired her based on her religious beliefs and TWU caused Southwest to discriminate against her on that basis. She further alleged that Southwest and TWU failed to accommodate her religious beliefs.
She also alleged Southwest and TWU retaliated against her because she objected to union activity and opposed TWU leadership – a violation of the RLA. Specifically, she claimed TWU retaliated by reporting her activities and speech to Southwest. And she said that Southwest retaliated against her by firing her.
In May, a federal court in Texas denied a motion to dismiss the claims and sent the case to trial. Carter v. Transport Workers Union of America, Local 455, No. 3:17-CV-2278-X, 2022 WL 1424989 (N.D. Tex. 5/5/22).
On July 14, a jury sided with the flight attendant, ordering Southwest to pay $4.15 million for back pay and pain and suffering. It also ordered TWU to pay $1.15 million, according to the NRTW.
Southwest and the union plan to appeal. We’ll keep you posted.
Next steps for HR: 3 action items
Abortion has always been a hot-button issue. The event at the center of the Southwest dispute happened back in 2017. And the issue hasn’t gone away.
If anything, it’s intensified with the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade. Some employees who feel strongly about the reversal may be more likely to engage in political speech — especially since midterm elections are right around the corner. So it’s probably a good time to:
- brainstorm strategies to address sensitive topics at work
- review policies on dress codes, especially if they ban political expression, and
- establish – or review – clear rules for your social media policy