Online Forums And 1st Admendment

Thu Dec 14, 2000 12:01 am

It looks like Delta and United are trying to use online Bulletin Boards and Forums against employees in labor disputes. This is interesting reading that will probably test the 1st admendment rights of people posting bulletin board/ forum type messages.

Airlines surf Web for evidence
of plans for more job actions

Workers’ use of the Web raise legal and workplace questions

By Martha Brannigan

Dec. 13 — When Delta Air Lines started its Wired Workforce project to help every employee get a home computer earlier this year, it didn’t expect this: “Stick with the rest of us. Be unified ... ‘No Overtime, No Excuses,’ ” read a posting by Charles Sargent on the password-protected online bulletin board operated by the Air Line Pilots Association, which represents Delta’s 9,800 pilots.

“IT IS YOUR and my contractual right to NOT fly overtime,” said a message from another Delta pilot.
Atlanta-based Delta cited dozens of online postings like these when it sought a federal restraining order to force ALPA and its pilots to halt what the airline alleges is a concerted campaign to refuse overtime. The carrier, which relies on overtime to keep its planes in the air, has canceled hundreds of flights, and it’s paring its schedule for the rest of this month and next by about 5 percent. On Monday, a federal judge denied the restraining order. Delta has filed an appeal.
But something else is at stake in the court battle. While the nation’s biggest airlines have been struggling with work slowdowns, the Web has become the medium of choice for airline workers to grouse about work and plan job actions. Now, airline workers are discovering the Internet can be a double-edged sword as management monitors their postings and even uses them as court exhibits to prove illegal activity.
ALPA acknowledges that many pilots are declining extra hours, but it insists that the union isn’t behind the effort and has even actively opposed it, posting online messages of its own.
In an e-mail message, Capt. Sargent, an Atlanta-based pilot, declines to comment, citing “the sensitivity of the current situation.” He was among 49 individual pilots named by Delta in its motion for the order.

Delta isn’t alone in battling action plans developed by its employees over the Internet. In November, UAL Corp.’s United Airlines obtained a court order barring its mechanics from illegal job actions that it alleges were orchestrated in part over the Web.
Northwest Airlines recently cited a posting on a Web site operated by the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association to complain to a federal judge that the union wasn’t fully abiding by a court order barring a slowdown by the mechanics.
All three carriers are in the midst of labor-contract negotiations, but they haven’t yet reached the stage at which job actions are permitted under the Railway Labor Act, which was designed to prevent interruptions of public transportation and commerce. As a result, any “concerted” effort to change the “status quo” is illegal. Delta, for example, contends that postings discouraging overtime flying are just the kind of activity prohibited by the act.
The workers’ use of the Web, and the responses of management, raise legal and workplace questions, from privacy to free speech. “It’s a great tool for organizing, but also [a tool] for management to listen in a way people may not be aware of,” says Alan Davidson, staff counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington, D.C., think tank. “It’s troubling particularly because people don’t know the rules of the road.” While some of the sites require passwords, management has been able to monitor the contents, in part by reading postings downloaded from the sites by employees who oppose the job actions.
Two days before Thanksgiving, United delivered an ultimatum to Dennis Sanderson, a mechanic who runs an antimanagement Web site called Either “clean up” the site by purging all the bulletin-board postings the airline identified as encouraging mechanics to continue a slowdown, or face contempt-of-court proceedings over whether the site had violated a temporary restraining order, United’s attorney said in a letter.

“I took the bulletin board down and started a fresh one to keep from having to go to court,” says Mr. Sanderson, of Centerville, Va. Now, he says, he edits co-workers’ remarks. “I don’t post anything some corporate lawyer might interpret as advocating an illegal job action,” he says. “I guess you could call it a chilling effect. ... Do you know how much money you’re talking to take on United Airlines in a First Amendment suit?”
United also subpoenaed records of Mr. Sanderson’s site in a quest to identify participants who are listed only by nicknames like “Brokenwrench” and “THE END JUSTIFIES THE MEANS.” The subpoena also compelled Mr. Sanderson to turn over any information tying his site to two unions that are vying for United mechanics’ support.
Last Wednesday, in response to the subpoena, Mr. Sanderson gave United lawyers a CD-ROM copy of his computer records, including the names of three people he says sent him e-mail identifying themselves after the commotion over the site began. “At that point in time, I had no choice,” he says. “I had to hand it over.”
Meanwhile, Delta filed another suit in federal court in Atlanta last week trying to discover who posted the flight schedules of some Delta pilots on a public Web site. The airline calls the posting an attempt to harass and intimidate those who aren’t supporting the no-overtime effort.
The suit names “John Does 1 through 10, and Jane Roes 1 through 10,” and seeks a court order to shut down the site, which could be reached by hyperlink from a site called “The Pilots Underground.” Soon after Delta filed its complaint, the hyperlink became inoperable. Within days, the site itself went dark, leaving only a posting that urges pilots to support their union leader.
Labor hasn’t given up on old-fashioned tactics. Some Delta pilots’ schedules have also been posted on traditional bulletin boards in pilots’ lounges in an attempt to publicize the names of pilots still flying overtime. One Delta pilot who had filed a “greenslip,” or request for overtime, complained to management after receiving an unsigned threat: “Dear Mr. GREEDSLIP, Does your wife know about the s—- from CVG? One more, she will,” warns the three-lined typed message, a copy of which Delta filed with its federal lawsuit.

ALPA’s professional standards committee has recently begun to investigate complaints of pilot harassment, which have included the theft of pilots’ flight kits (thus forcing pilots to cancel trips) and nasty messages in pilots’ mailboxes. In a letter to pilots last Thursday, ALPA said it hasn’t encouraged or condoned such actions, adding that such activity “also causes the vast majority of pilots who are also disgusted with this type of behavior to question the union.”
The online labor battles raise questions about whether and when a Web site operator is responsible for the content. ALPA says its online forum is a place for pilots to exchange views and doesn’t necessarily express the union’s stance. ALPA has said repeatedly — on the Web site and elsewhere — that it doesn’t support the no-overtime campaign by pilots, but it hasn’t removed any postings about the overtime issue. “Our policy is to only monitor for slander and profanity,” says ALPA spokeswoman Karen Miller. “They’re going to talk to each other whether it’s in the forum or in the crew lounges.”
By contrast, Bill Bailey, president of AMFA Local 35, which represents Northwest mechanics in Duluth, Minn., says his union doesn’t have a bulletin board on its site for fear the union will be blamed by management for inflammatory content. “They’ve got enough weapons,” says Mr. Bailey, noting that the company has accounted for many of the recent hits on the union’s Web site.
Minneapolis-based Northwest is no newcomer to Web-based labor battles. Earlier this year, it obtained a court order to copy the hard drives of flight attendants as it tried to prove that the group was conducting an illegal job action.
When Northwest recently forced AMFA to post a court order on its site, the Webmaster of Local 35 listed it as “Stupid TRO Notice,” prompting the airline to accuse it of contempt of court. The union removed the comment and admonished its Webmaster.
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Joined: Sat Sep 25, 1999 12:01 pm

RE: Online Forums And 1st Admendment

Thu Dec 14, 2000 3:17 am

First, here is what the First Amendment states:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

This is an interesting situation because it is not the Federal Government seeking to silence the employees - it is the employers. There is nothing written that prohibits employers from setting certain standards for employees. I spent several years as a TV anchor, and if I did anything to disgrace the station or myself, I could be fired. For example, I could not get drunk in public. I could not use profanity in public. I could not go to strip clubs or places like that. Some people may find that stupid, but it was not big deal for me. If I didn't wnat the job, Lord knows there were plenty of others who did.

If I was am employer and my employees were publically saying bad things about me, I would be inclined to get upset about it and may take action against them. That's free enterprise. Sure, they can say what they want. But I have the right to dismiss them.
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RE: Online Forums And 1st Admendment

Thu Dec 14, 2000 6:53 am

MCOtoATL, good point about the First Amendment not prohibiting private parties from limiting the speech of others. I agree that Delta hasn't violated the First Amendment because it's not a government agency, but the First Amendment does apply to the pilots in that they have the right to conduct free speech on the bulletin boards. It would be interesting, however, to find out what Delta's collective bargaining agreement says about Delta's ability to take disciplinary action against its pilots. CBAs usually have clauses that allow for for successive disciplinary procedures and a grievance process that the employer, union and employee have to follow. Does anyone have information on what the CBA between Delta and the union/employees says about discipline procedures?
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Joined: Sun Oct 28, 2007 1:34 am

RE: Online Forums And 1st Admendment

Thu Dec 14, 2000 7:57 am

This issue, while very important, is a question of ethics, not of the Constitution. If I read correctly, Delta airlines bought the computers for its employees. This is a significant detail not to be overlooked. If the computers were purchased with the intent to promote communication among workers, that is one thing. If they were provided for no other reason than to allow Delta employees access to the Internet and do what they wish, that is a completely different ball game. Also, is the bulletin board owned or run by Delta itself? No matter what, this is an ETHICAL problem, not a CONSTITUTIONAL one -- the government hasn't acted in this situation (Although I think it should with regard to the delays &c.)

The Bottom line, though, is that a slowdown of any kind is nothing short of child's play. Why punish travelers who have no stake in a pilot's fate. I (and much of America) wish that pilots would be more inclined to negotiate like adults, not like crying children. We have spent the last month dealing with this wining between president-elect Bush and vice-president Gore. Come on, aren't pilots all grown adults? Are they not capable of fair and more considerate measures than a strike or slowdown? Ooo, look at me; I can taxi a little slower after I land...give me more benefits...


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