The verdict includes compensatory and punitive damages.
Charlene Carter was a flight attendant for Southwest for over 20 years with no complaints against her. She was fired by the Dallas-based airline in March 2017 for pro-life posts and messages the company said were “highly offensive in nature” and that violated their social media policy, according to court documents.
The jury found that Southwest was liable for discriminating against Carter due to her “sincerely held religious observances, beliefs, or practices.”
It also found that the Transport Workers Union to which Carter paid dues violated its duty of fair representation and retaliated against her for criticizing union leadership, an activity protected by the Railway Labor Act (RLA) that governs the airline industry.
Carter called the verdict “a victory for freedom of speech and religious beliefs.”
In a press statement, she said, “Flight attendants should have a voice and nobody should be able to retaliate against any employee for engaging in protected speech against her union.”
Carter has asked that she be reinstated to her position as a flight attendant at Southwest but is awaiting the decision by U.S. District Judge Brantley Starr.
She was represented in the case by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, a group committed to eliminating compulsory union membership.
“Southwest Airlines has a demonstrated history of supporting our [e]mployees’ rights to express their opinions when done in a respectful manner,” reads a statement by Southwest to The Texan. “We are disappointed with this verdict and plan to appeal to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.”
Carter began her career as a flight attendant for Southwest in 1996. She was a member of the local union chapter until 2013 when she resigned her membership, objecting to its political and ideological spending. Carter was a vocal opponent of the local union leadership from 2013 to 2017.
Under the RLA, Carter could resign her membership from the union but must still pay dues.
“It is Hobson’s choice,” National Right to Work president Mark Mix told The Texan. “She can not be a member, but then she gives up her right to vote for union representatives in the elections.”
In January 2017, Carter learned that some members of her local union chapter participated in the “Women’s March” in Washington, D.C. and promoted causes she opposes, like abortion. She believed that union dues had been used to fund the trip and Southwest Airlines had accommodated the schedules of those wishing to attend, court documents alleged.
In response, Carter posted pro-life videos on Facebook and sent private messages to the local union president, Audrey Stone, opposing abortion. Stone reported Carter to Southwest.
During the same time frame, Carter also emailed Stone expressing her support for right-to-work legislation after receiving a union email asking her to oppose it.
Not long after, Southwest held a “fact-finding meeting,” questioning Carter about her pro-life posts and messages and her email supporting right-to-work legislation, the court filings explain.
On March 14, 2017, Southwest notified Carter that it was terminating her employment.
She then filed suit against the TWU chapter and Southwest for violating her rights.
At trial, as part of its effort to demonstrate retaliation by TWU, Carter’s attorneys revealed other communications by union representatives to Southwest employees advocating for “targeted assassinations” of those who criticized the union and referring to them as “cancerous tumors.”
In one email, the union chapter treasurer John Parrott laughed and derided Carter after she asked that payroll deductions used for political action no longer be subtracted from her paycheck.
“Ha! She has been supporting the thing she despises the entire time,” he wrote.
“The evidence presented at Carter’s trial reveals an ingrained union culture of intimidation and prejudice against dissident workers,” Mix said of the email revelations.
“Federal law…allows union officials to demand workers fund their activities as a condition of employment,” he explained further. “Workers do not have even the simple power to withhold dues when union officials violate their rights.”
The National Right to Work Act, which has 107 co-sponsors in the House and 21 co-sponsors in the Senate, has been proposed to make unions voluntary and not compulsory as a condition of employment.
The Transport Workers Union did not reply to a request for comment by the time of publication.
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Kim Roberts is a reporter for the Texan in the DFW metroplex area where she has lived for over twenty years. She has a Juris Doctor from Baylor University Law School and a Bachelor's in government from Angelo State University. In her free time, Kim home schools her daughter and coaches high school extemporaneous speaking and apologetics. She has been happily married to her husband for 23 years, has three wonderful children, and two dogs.